The race for two Pasco County commission seats is a numbers game.
Republican incumbent Commissioners Mike Moore and Mike Wells Jr. highlight economic data: 16,000 new jobs in Pasco County over the past four years; a job growth rate of 3.4 percent that surpasses the region, state and national gains; record tourism receipts; and tens of millions of dollars in transportation infrastructure coming to Wesley Chapel and east Pasco.
Their Democratic challengers, Kelly Smith of Wesley Chapel and Brandi Geoit of New Port Richey, point to other economics: 42 percent of the county’s households earn more than the federal poverty level, but less than the basic cost of living, according to the United Way. The median household income trails the state average, and prior to Oct. 1, more than 22 percent of the county government workforce was paid less than $15 per hour.
“I don’t think we have a whole lot of people in the middle anymore,’’ said Smith, who is challenging Moore for the District 2 commission seat based in central Pasco.
“Permit time has been cut in half. Customer service numbers are up. There have been process improvements. It all equates to economic development,’’ said Wells, who faces Geoit for the District 4 seat.
The differences extend beyond the perception of Pasco’s economy. Both incumbents voted multiple times to pursue the environmental permit to build the Ridge Road Extension, a highway proposed more than 20 years ago to link the Moon Lake area to the Suncoast Parkway and beyond to U.S. 41. The two challengers oppose the highway’s construction, saying it’s not worth the environmental damage to the Serenova preserve.
Moore and Wells portray themselves as low-tax, business-friendly Republicans, but it has been a balancing act. Though the commission held the property tax rate steady for three consecutive years, Moore led the board to increase the tax rates in 2015 to boost salaries for deputies and firefighters.
Since then, the board unanimously voted to double the tourist tax rate to finance construction of an indoor sports complex in Wesley Chapel, increased the education impact fee on new home construction to build schools and twice voted to increase the annual assessments to pay for storm-water drainage.
“We have made tough decisions,’’ said Wells, “but they are the right decisions and I am proud of that.’’
Voters also will be asked in November to consider four bond referendums to increase property taxes to pay for an expanded jail, new fire stations, better maintained parks and refurbished libraries. The ballot questions came after commissioners declined to raise impact fees for parks or to set up separate, permanent taxing districts specifically for libraries and recreation costs.
Commissioners are elected countywide, but must reside within their districts. Early voting begins Oct. 24. Election Day is Nov. 6. Here is the breakdown of the two races:
Moore, 47, of Wesley Chapel, operates his own business consulting firm, focusing primarily on health care. He won an open seat on the commission four years ago, succeeding retiring 20-year incumbent Pat Mulieri. Moore champions public safety and may be Sheriff Chris Nocco’s most vocal supporter on a board filled with public safety advocates.
“That’s one of the most important things we can do,’’ said Moore, “making people feel safe and secure in their own homes. We have to make sure we continue to invest in public safety.’’
Moore also became the board leader in pushing for ordinances to clean up commercial blight and to better control roadside clothing donation bins that had become illegal dump sites. He also was key in beginning bus service along U.S. 41 in Land O’ Lakes and Lutz.
Faced with mounting complaints about the traffic bottlenecks at State Road 56 and Interstate 75, Moore and others successfully lobbied legislators and the state Department of Transportation to accelerate construction of the so-called divergent diamond interchange. That $37 million project is scheduled to begin shortly, six years earlier than originally planned. Likewise, the widening of State Road 54 east of Curley Road is ongoing, and the county, state and private sector partnered on widening the extension of SR 56 toward Zephyrhills.
“I’ve sat in that traffic, too. It’s quality of life. Less time on the road is better quality of life,’’ said Moore.
Smith, who turns 44 next week, is operations coordinator for Atkins, a design and engineering firm in Tampa. She also touts her prior government experience as FEMA coordinator for Collier County and zoning administrator for the city of Marco Island. She and her family moved to Wesley Chapel nine years ago to be closer to family members.
Pointing to her background in zoning work, she is critical of the county’s land-use decisions that she said allowed for rapid and irresponsible development leading to crowded roads and schools.
But her primary focus is income equality. If elected, she said, she would propose raising the minimum hourly wage paid to county government workers to $15. New raises, however, went into effect Oct. 1. The county’s human resources department reported that approximately 400 of the county’s 2,400 employees, 16.6 percent, earn less than $15 hourly. Prior to the start of the fiscal year, that figure was 535 people. If the county paid everybody the $15-per-hour wage, it would encourage others to do likewise, Smith said.
Smith said she would continue to offer business incentives to lure higher-wage jobs to Pasco, saying the county needs to get away from a service-based economy.
“It doesn’t do us any good to bring in minimum-wage jobs and retail jobs,’’ she said.
She also suggests the commission is out of touch with average residents.
“The board is made up of millionaires and developers, while the average Pasco resident makes $43,000,’’ she said.
That demographic description fits some board members, but not the two incumbents seeking re-election. Neither Moore nor Wells reports a net worth of $1 million, and neither is a developer.
Brandi Geoit, 42, moved to Pasco County nine years ago from Michigan to work in human services. Her job directing the West Coast AIDS Foundation was eliminated in June because of a change in state Medicaid funding.
Though the race is countywide, Geoit is focusing her platform nearly exclusively on the west side.
“If west Pasco fails, so does the rest of the county,’’ she said.
She is critical of the 500-job Mettler Toledo plant locating next to the Suncoast Parkway in Lutz instead of near the U.S. 19 corridor. And she suggested the county is remiss for not doing more to turn the partially empty Gulf View Square mall into an employment center.
“When you have high instances of poverty, it brings in issues like crime, blight. All of the things we complain about on a daily basis are directly connected to poverty,’’ said Geoit. “We have all these issues that we are not addressing, and the core issue is that we don’t have good-paying jobs.’’
She also criticizes the county for its tourism efforts, saying the frequent swimming prohibitions at polluted coastal beach parks hurt the economy. The county, however, is reporting its highest-ever tourist tax revenues (even taking into account the rate increase), and eight hotels are under construction or being planned, including two in west Pasco.
Wells, 47, the son of former commissioner and retired Property Appraiser Mike Wells Sr., is a real estate agent and charter fishing boat captain. He can point to boosting Pasco’s tourism effort nearly single-handed. Wells assumed the lead role in persuading the state to again allow scallop harvesting off Pasco’s coast.
The 10-day seasons this year and next are a preview of what county officials hope will be an extended scallop season for Pasco beginning in 2020. To prepare for the influx of boaters, Wells persuaded the rest of the commission to include $5 million for new boat ramps and parking when it increased the tourist tax to pay for the sports complex in Wesley Chapel.
And Wells noted the proposed changes to the county’s transportation fee include new discounts for in-fill development to try to encourage economic activity between the coast and Rowan Road.
Wells said he is most proud of the commission’s investments in public safety, noting that public budget battles between commissioners and the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office are a thing of the past.
“I swore if I got elected, we wouldn’t have that anymore,’’ said Wells, “and we don’t.’’
Contact C.T. Bowen at [email protected] or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2.