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Stormy politics, weather, 1 cent

George W. Bush made the first Pasco visit by a sitting president in recent memory. Voters approved a sales tax increase and ousted a county commissioner. And a trio of storms damaged scores of homes and businesses, making for the costliest hurricane season in Pasco County history.

All of it made for a memorable 2004 _ even if there are some parts that residents would rather forget.

The year started with the hard-fought campaign over the Penny for Pasco, a 1-cent sales tax increase that would split the proceeds between county government, the School Board and the six cities. The county's cut would be an estimated $145.5-million over a decade.

Commissioners offered something for everyone: road improvements, environmental land buys, purchases of sheriff's patrol cars and heart defibrillators, even a property tax break if voters approved the higher sales tax. But the critics, led by GOP leaders Bill and Ann Bunting, argued the county had plenty of money already.

"We keep paying for things, and they keep saying they need more," said Ann Bunting, who founded the Citizens Against the Penny for Pasco. "It's an insatiable beast."

But to the majority who came to the polls, a penny seemed a small price to pay for more schools, improved roads and other projects. The sales tax increase, which went into effect Jan. 1, passed in March with 52 percent of the vote.

The Penny lingered as an election year issue, with county commissioners Ann Hildebrand and Peter Altman facing opponents who voted against the sales tax increase. Hildebrand, a 20-year veteran who helped lead the push for the Penny, easily won her sixth term in November.

"I would say the people that voted felt that the Penny for Pasco is going to be a good thing for Pasco County and that we are on a solid, good track," the Republican commissioner said.

But her Democratic colleague Altman narrowly lost to Republican Jack Mariano, a car salesman who took nearly 51 percent of the vote. The defeat ended Altman's 16-year tenure as a public servant, including four years as a commissioner and 12 years on the New Port Richey City Council.

"My thoughts are purely on the fact that I have been so blessed and honored to be able to participate in the great things over a long number of years," Altman said election night.

Part of Mariano's support came from the groundswell of GOP voters who turned out for George W. Bush. The president made a point to win Pasco County: He spoke at a Sims Park rally in October as part of his strategy to court suburban and rural voters.

Gov. Jeb Bush and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani also spoke to Pasco groups during the campaign, and the strategy paid off. The president carried Pasco County by more than 18,000 votes, a strong finish considering he narrowly lost the county to Al Gore in 2000.

Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings visited Pasco County for a different reason: to survey storm damage.

Hurricane Charley largely spared the area, although next-day rains hammered the county. Then hurricanes Frances and Jeanne ripped through Pasco three weeks apart, both times lifting the roof off one wing of Community Hospital. Jennings called the storms "the evil twin sisters."

"We've never seen anything like this, and hopefully we never will again," Jennings said in September.

In Pasco County, the storms destroyed 14 homes, left 3,500 buildings with minor damage and nearly 1,000 more with major damage. Two dozen neighborhoods flooded. About 7,000 county residents requested applications for federal aid.

The county spent $6.8-million on the three storms for personnel costs, debris cleanup, pumps and other equipment and to repair damages. Most of that will be reimbursed by the federal and state government.

Pasco County continued working through its growing pains in 2004. Commissioners learned in June that the garbage incinerator in Shady Hills was nearing capacity seven years sooner than planned. Expanding the facility could cost anywhere from $229-million to $353-million, including construction and operating costs for 20 years.

Commissioners also plunged into the realm of forced paving assessments for some of Pasco's oldest communities. In Embassy Hills, Beacon Square, Jasmine Lakes and Forest Hills, commissioners decided to repave the roads and charge homeowners for the work, even though the residents hadn't voted in favor of it.

If they waited, commissioners contended, the roads would fall apart and repair costs would triple. Some residents applauded the decisions. Others protested.

"I'm (working) a minimum-wage job," Beacon Square resident Melody Cachetas told commissioners in October. "How much can you bleed me?"

The county pressed forward with redevelopment efforts in Tommytown, a poor neighborhood outside Dade City. In March the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development presented a $13-million check _ the largest loan in the Tampa division's history _ to the county to repave the streets, add street lights, provide central water and sewer lines, and create drainage ponds throughout Tommytown.

Community leader Margarita Romo called the check a miracle. But her efforts to rename Lock Street to Calle de Milagros, or Street of Miracles, ended with a compromise. Commissioners decided in November to keep Lock Street, named for one of the area's pioneering families, but add "Calle de Milagros" as an honorary second street name.

The year also saw the closing of the Tampa Bay Executive Airport; the efforts to acquire more than 700 acres for conservation along Strauber Memorial Highway; and the start of the long-awaited Hudson Channel dredging project.

Commissioner Pat Mulieri even came out of the "clown closet," announcing in July that she had graduated from clown college. If she's wearing face paint at a community festival and showing off pictures of goats as her "kids," call her Giggles.

The plans for a Wal-Mart Supercenter near Beacon Woods remain in limbo, but the store helped inspire a pair of ordinances.

Commissioners voted in March to charge developers along U.S. 19 a fair share fee to make improvements to the highway. The idea is to make developers pay for the extra traffic they draw onto U.S. 19. But critics noted the fee will raise an estimated $200,000 a year _ a drop in the bucket for a highway that needs $94-million in improvements.

In July, commissioners passed a big box ordinance requiring extra landscaping and architectural features for stores or shopping centers larger than 25,000 square feet.

As for the Wal-Mart, county officials rejected one set of blueprints in July for a 203,700-square-foot supercenter on U.S. 19, just north of Beacon Woods Drive. But the retailer filed new plans three months later, this time proposing a signal to better handle the traffic.

"Two and a half years have gone," said Beacon Woods Civic Association vice president Ray Watson, "and I'm right back where I started."

Bridget Hall Grumet covers Pasco County government. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6244, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6244. Her e-mail address is hallsptimes.com.

President Bush speaks to a crowd of about 6,000 at Sims Park in New Port Richey in October. Bush's campaign strategy of repeat visits to Florida paid off with a win on Nov. 2. The president carried Pasco County by more than 18,000 votes, a strong finish considering he narrowly lost the county to Al Gore in 2000.

Joanne Nelson talks on the phone in her Hudson home amid piles of asbestos insulation and debris in late September. The roof of the home she has shared with her son Tim Nelson for 13 years was blown off by Hurricane Jeanne, causing the mess. "I really couldn't believe it was happening," he said.

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