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County prospers despite floods, fires

If, in the lifetime of a county, years are charted like the business cycle _ with peak periods of expansion between troughs of recession and plateaus of stasis _ 1998 would likely be a point somewhere on the upswing.

It was a year that witnessed expansion for Pasco's schools, roads and businesses. It was an election year in which the political pendulum swung to the opposite end of the continuum, ushering in a mixed bag of newcomers and old faces. And just as county leaders made peace with allocating the water beneath Pasco's soil, nature deluged it with precipitation from above.

What follows is a list of touchstones on that journey, not meant to be exhaustive, but rather to serve as reminders of the year that has gone before.

February brought hard-won lessons for county emergency personnel, after a sketched map cost firefighters six minutes responding to a burning home in Hudson. The house fire killed an expectant mother and her two children.

The map did not show a street barricade that the firefighters could not penetrate. So though the home was just 2.5 miles from the fire station, it took nearly 13 minutes for help to arrive.

The hand-drawn maps were discarded later that month when the county mounted an aggressive campaign to replace them with computer-generated maps that had been updated more consistently.

May saw Paradise of Port Richey, one of the county's wealthiest businesses and operators of two Pasco gambling ships, snatching up waterfront land to the tune of $2.25-million. The move, designed as an end run to keep out floating casino competitors, effectively sewed up some of the last Pasco property with access to the Gulf of Mexico and dissuaded a group of Native Americans from Michigan who considered launching a boat from the area.

Before the year was out, Paradise's parent company, which owns the Port Richey boats and nine others around Florida, would find itself facing civil and criminal charges from both state and federal agencies.

SunCruz's headquarters near Hollywood, Fla., also would be raided twice by investigators, though the Port Richey offices remained untouched.

June 1998 marked a truce in Tampa Bay's 70-year battle over water. Pasco County signed an accord with Pinellas, Hillsborough and the cities of Tampa and New Port Richey, ending a legal battle over how the region would equitably distribute its water resources.

The agreement created a new regional water board composed of representatives from each of the member governments. It also outlined a commitment to conservation and researching new sources of water.

June also witnessed the beginning of construction on the Suncoast Parkway. While a bevy of possible names were being bandied about, construction crews began cutting a swath through central Pasco that eventually will connect with the Veterans Expressway in Hillsborough County and stretch from northern Hillsborough through Hernando County.

Scheduled to open in January 2001, the 42 miles of parkway will cost an estimated $449-million and will be Pasco's biggest road undertaking since I-75 opened 30 years ago. Pasco residents will be able to connect to the parkway at County Line Road, state roads 52 and 54, and via the county's planned extension of Ridge Road.

But what June offered in construction, it more than made up for in destruction. When dry conditions made the state a tinder box, Pasco County was not spared. And as the month waned, the threat of more wildfires sparked a statewide ban on fireworks for Independence Day.

Brush fires consumed 350 acres of forest land north of Odessa near the Starkey well fields, then raged across 200 acres to the east. Lightning strikes were thought to have ignited blazes near Morris Bridge south of Zephyrhills and contributed to what firefighters called the Sleepless Night Fire. That conflagration claimed 1,012 acres about four miles south of State Road 52 and three miles west of U.S. 41.

Meanwhile, the year saw those roads under construction as crews scrambled to keep ahead of the county's burgeoning transportation needs. State roads 52 and 54 were promised to grow wider if motorists could only hold out another year.

Rowan Road expanded to four lanes between SR 54 and Massachusetts Avenue, while the northern end of Little Road swelled to an ample six lanes from Fivay Road to U.S. 19. Denton took on the mantle of pavement from Coyote Road to Shady Hills Road.

Bricks and mortar were high on the school officials' priority list, as school administrators launched a $105-million building spree. The plan will bring five new elementary schools, two middle schools and two high schools to the county over the next five years, a span during which enrollment is expected to increase by 17 percent.

Though officials initially estimated they would need $200-million to build seven schools and expand four others, they decided instead to nix the expansions while building more aggressively.

In a September special election, Sheriff Lee Cannon's proposal of a tax for new deputies became the fifth property tax referendum to fail in Pasco since 1987.

The sheriff proposed an additional tax of $1.20 for each $1,000 of property that would pay for 220 deputies over the next decade. Despite the special tax's resounding defeat, county commissioners did promise Cannon 10 new deputies this year.

September also saw Pasco bracing for Hurricane Georges, which in the end skirted Florida's west coast altogether. But the county still spent $192,000 battening down its hatches. Pasco's inclusion in a federally-declared disaster zone earned it the right to have nearly $150,000 of that money refunded.

But even money couldn't stem the floodwaters that saturated the ground and record rains deposited on the county. Residents of Timber Lake Estates, the area near Wire Road, Bass Lakes and Fairway Springs fought the elements and the county to try to alleviate flooding woes.

Lake Padgett Estates dwellers found solace when the county repaired a broken berm that flooded their neighborhood. And the county purchased an entire east Pasco community called Lost Lake when said body of water suddenly reappeared around residents' front doors.

County officials and Wesley Chapel residents suffered disappointment of another kind in October when the developer of a proposed mall cooled to the idea of a Pasco locale. Mills Corp. ceased advance work and market studies and forfeited its option to buy about 350 acres of land southeast of the SR 54 and I-75 intersection.

The company held the option for about a year but never finalized a sale. Though the company maintained that putting the Wesley Chapel site on hold was not the death knell for a Pasco outlet mall, it continued to scout sites in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

Political winds whipped up a wave of Republican registration. For the first time in Pasco's history, in November's election the county had more registered Republicans than Democrats. The voters returned incumbent Mike Fasano to the state Legislature, in spite of a challenge by a Democratic lawyer and former stripper, Chuck Kalogianis.

The electorate also gave the nod to former New Port Richey City Council member Heather Fiorentino for state House district 46 in a hotly contested race. In the end only 23 votes enabled Fiorentino to upset Democratic incumbent Debra Prewitt, an outcome apparent only after a contested recount.

Even more stunning was the ouster of two-term county Commissioner Ed Collins, who was unseated by Democratic newcomer Steve Simon. Collins' defeat came in the wake of questions about his consulting fees and allegations that he voted for a controversial gun range in exchange for future campaign contributions.

November also marked the resignation of a fixture on Pasco's School Board. Five-term board member Dorothy Mitchell ended a 20-year tenure on the board when she declined to run for re-election.

Mitchell, whose husband volunteered her to run for the post in 1978, presided over Pasco schools' growth from a system with 23,000 students in 28 schools to nearly 48,000 students attending 48 schools.

The 70-year-old was saluted as an astute board member who care fully scrutinized contracts and saved the district on various land deals.

"I didn't think I would like it, but I did," Mitchell said of her stint.

"There are some very fine people in this school system; it's been a pleasure to be around them."