The nine county commission candidates who took the stage Tuesday night for the first of three West Pasco Chamber of Commerce debates may have all been Republicans. But the "R" following their names was about the only thing they had in common as each sought to distinguish themselves from the competition.
Challengers painted incumbents as either divisive or complacent. They offered varied opinions on topics ranging from park fees and mass transit to economic development and budget cutting.
Incumbent Commissioner Ted Schrader, seeking his fourth term, faces challenges from citrus grower Ronnie Oakley and Rachel O'Conner, a former field representative for the Republic Party of Florida.
The challengers attacked Schrader's record on job creation, taxes and the county's new mobility fee system.
"We need to create sustainable, high-tech jobs that will stay here in our community," O'Conner said.
Schrader pointed to his involvement in recruiting financial giants T. Rowe Price and Raymond James to Pasco County. Both companies have pledged to bring 1,000 jobs to the county, but neither has broken ground yet on a new office park.
Schrader also defended his support of a mobility fee system that makes it more expensive to build homes in the district's rural areas than along the U.S. 19 or State Road 54 corridors.
Oakley, whose company owns hundreds of acres of agricultural land, said the new fee structure has harmed many of his friends who want to sell their land for development. "There is nothing wrong with good, solid business and home construction in that area," he said.
Oakley also criticized Schrader for supporting a move to raise the county's millage rate to a rollback rate, which generates the same revenue as the previous year. "A lot of people don't understand the rollback," he said. "They think it's a cut when it's actually an increase. It just means the commissioners can avoid making good, tough decisions that would make us level out and live within our means."
When challenged by the debate moderators, Oakley didn't offer a specific program or service he would cut. Both he and O'Conner said they would eliminate the parks and recreation fees commissioners adopted two years ago.
Since no Democrat filed to run for the seat, the winner will be determined by the Aug. 14 primary, which is open to all Pasco voters regardless of party affiliation.
The District 3 race provided the most fireworks of the night as candidates tried to distance themselves from front-runner Kathryn Starkey, a former school board member who has raised the most money and racked up the most endorsements.
Retired Coast Guard investigator Randy Evans pointed out that he was the only candidate in the race who had served in the military and earned a master's degree. "I'm the only candidate who lives in the district and qualified by petition," he said.
Karen King said her community involvement and work with veterans sets her apart from the crowded field. "I've got my finger on the pulse of the community," she said.
Starkey said her experience on the school board makes her the most qualified. "I've made hard decisions — I've had to cut jobs before," she said.
Joshua Griffin said he would base all his governing decisions on whether the program complies with his interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. He suggested the county could reduce spending and be more efficient if it outsourced its public works department to the private sector. He also wants to stop spending Penny for Pasco funds for environmental land acquisition.
Griffin and Evans said they would vote to eliminate park user fees, but Starkey and King support keeping them. The candidates divided along the same lines when it came to the county's new mobility system.
"It'll be interesting to see how it works," King said, noting that in some areas the transportation impact fees are zero. "Why I like mobility fees is because in those areas the infrastructure is already in place."
Of the four candidates, only Starkey supported the possibility of light rail in the future. "I'm for multimodal transportation, but I think it's years away," she said.
A fifth candidate, Chris Gregg, did not attend the debate. The winner faces Democrat Matt Murphy in November.
The chamber debate gave many voters their first opportunity to hear from church pastor Bill Gunter, who is challenging incumbent Commissioner Jack Mariano. The race is open to all Pasco voters.
Gunter said he was lured into the race by several developers who felt Mariano had become too much of a "loose cannon" and too parochial regarding pet projects, such as the development of the Sunwest mine.
"A reputation is there because a reputation is there," Gunter said. "A lot of people wonder why the fixation? It has to be shared passion with the other county commissioners."
Mariano denied the accusation that he's provincial. "I don't worry about my district — I worry about my county," he said. "My opponent doesn't even live in-district yet."
The two also disagreed over the disputed park fees. "It's a $2 fee and most people are OK with that," Gunter said. "Jack continually brings it up and fights with the other commissioners."
Mariano said the overwhelming majority of voters who signed his petition to qualify for the race oppose the fee. He criticized Gunter for advocating that the county give raises to first responders without saying where he would find the money.
"This is a very important position, and to not have an answer is inexcusable," Mariano said.