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Economic job is no cakewalk

Ed Blommel didn't get much of a grace period.

In his first three weeks as president of the Pasco County Committee of 100, Blommel has faced two major controversies.

First came the resignation of longtime board member Dan Aldridge, who questioned Blommel's allegiances. Blommel, 48, is a Pasco native and district manager for Tampa Electric Co., which has previously opposed the Committee of 100's recruiting businesses in Hillsborough.

Then came pointed questions from some county commissioners about nearly $250,000 in reserves the committee has accumulated since 1992. The committee, funded mainly by the county, is a non-profit group that promotes economic development in Pasco.

Commissioners said they weren't aware of the windfall when they recently voted to give the group $230,000 for the next fiscal year. Neither, it turns out, were some Committee of 100 board members, all of whom are volunteers.

"I was kind of surprised that they had so much in reserves," County Commissioner Ed Collins said. "If they are not using it, they should return it to the county."

Commissioner Ann Hildebrand added: "I think the Committee of 100 and the county want to know what these dollars were allocated for, and why it hasn't been spent."

Blommel, however, isn't ruffled by all the questions, which he says he shares. Blommel said he learned about the reserve money last week from committee treasurer Anita Castriota, who discovered the funds in a review of the group's finances. Castriota, who succeeded Aldridge as the committee's secretary and treasurer, declined to comment.

In 1992, the Committee of 100's board agreed to put money in reserve as a hedge against any sudden loss of government funding or decline in membership, Blommel said. The $243,000, invested in certificates of deposit in SunTrust Bank, SouthTrust Bank and other banks, was accumulated through membership fees, fund raisers and "monies that we had budgeted to spend and we didn't," he said.

Blommel said he didn't know whether the reserves included unspent tax dollars. Any unspent money from the county would have to be returned, County Administrator John Gallagher said.

Mike Nurrenbrock, director of the county's office of management and budget, said he didn't think the Committee of 100 had violated its contract with the county. The committee's audited financial statements in recent years show that it has spent all tax dollars approved by the county, he said. That means any reserve funds must have come from another source and should not have to be returned to the county, Nurrenbrock said.

No one attempted to hide the money, Blommel said. The committee staff knew it was there and so did some committee members. "It has not been hidden from anybody," he said. "It's just that nobody asked the right questions."

Blommel agreed that county commissioners should have been told of the money. "That's a lack of communication on the Committee of 100's part," he said.

To smooth relations, Blommel has been meeting individually with county commissioners. The committee and the County Commission are set to meet Dec. 2 as the Council of Business and Industry. The council, which has rarely met since it was created in 1995, will now meet quarterly.

At the meeting, Blommel said he would be able to answer more questions about the reserve money, how it was derived, and how it might be spent.

Some possible expenditures: a marketing study of Pasco; hiring an executive director, which the committee has been without since 1993; increasing the committee's contribution to the Tampa Bay Partnership, a regional marketing group; and creating an organization that would link the Tourist Development Council and the Committee of 100, an idea Collins has floated.

Blommel said the committee would provide more regular and complete financial reports to the county. In addition, he said, Commissioner Hildebrand will attend the committee's board meetings.

"Whatever it takes to build a strong partnership is what we're going to do," he said.

_ Times staff writer Richard Verrier can be reached at 869-6245 or by e-mail at verriersptimes.com.

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