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Chillura's recklessness

Let Joe Chillura deny the obvious all he wants. The Hillsborough commissioner is sabotaging the county's health plan in an effort to repackage himself as a fiscal conservative. Chillura may be preening to seek higher office, but his crusade is phony and reckless _ and two-faced coming from the godfather of Hillsborough's $3-billion sales tax increase.

Chillura needs to decide whether he supports preventive care for the working poor, or not. The plan has saved Hillsborough taxpayers millions of dollars by reducing hospital stays and emergency room visits. The county is legally and morally obligated to provide charity care, and doing so through a program that has demonstrably controlled costs only makes sense. That is why some longtime Republicans, such as state Sen. John Grant, are working furiously to renew the county's taxing authority.

The Hillsborough commission has backed legislation in Tallahassee to extend the tax. The health plan, which is funded by sales and property taxes, otherwise will expire in 1998.

The commissioner has soured the effort by calling for a property tax cut or a public referendum. He has needlessly rang alarm bells and undermined the ability of Hillsborough's legislative delegation to speak with a single voice in the Capitol.

The myth behind Chillura's fury is that Hillsborough cannot control its health care plan. That is ridiculous. The county can reduce taxes charged for the program and expand eligibility any number of ways. Local officials do not necessarily need Tallahassee to impose sensible operational or spending controls. Chillura knows it. But he is too busy wiping his fingerprints to work courageously to salvage a worthy government program.

Putting the powerless at risk would be shameful enough if Chillura hadn't steered a $300-million stadium to Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer only a few months ago. Chillura's retreat in February coincided with his switch to the Republican party, and came amid a misinformed blitz by county GOP leaders to kill the health care bill. Ironically, Chillura's me-first meddling could force the commission to raise property taxes should the health plan go bust. That decision would come in 1998 _ the last year, coincidentally, of Chillura's term.

The mixed signals have embarrassed Hillsborough's legislative delegation and made it more difficult for any member to champion the bill. A quick deal in the Senate could revive the legislation and spark momentum in the House. If Chillura entered public office to serve his community, he will quit working to block a plan to help Hillsborough's working poor.