Double vision on county growth

The commission incumbent says the foundation is laid for better growth; the challenger says not enough has been done.

Published October 29, 2006

Driving on U.S. 19 or State Road 54 at rush hour can make a person curse.

Democrat Michael Cox wants to use that anger to make voters oust two-term Commissioner Steve Simon.

As Cox tries to tap discontent over Pasco's rapid growth, however, the industries involved in growth have put much more of their money on Simon, a Republican. Their contributions have given Simon financial leverage for the Nov. 7 election.

Building, real estate and development industries have given Simon at least $56,000 of his $96,000 in contributions through Oct. 13, according to a Times review.

Cox has received $10,000 from those industries, while raising $46,000 overall.

After interviewing both candidates, the central, east and west Pasco Realtors groups decided last week to support Simon, said Bob Memoli, legislative chairman for the West Pasco Board of Realtors. The Pasco Building Association endorsed Simon in August.

A $500 check from the Realtors political action committee is expected to go to Simon, who "has the know-how to continue to get the job done," Memoli said.

"Mike has good ideas," Memoli explained. "We weren't sure he could implement all of his ideas."

Cox said Simon has the advantages of being an incumbent and is beholden to the businesses after eight years in office - time that could have been used to handle Pasco's rapid growth more efficiently.

"What do we have after eight years?" Cox asked. "We have roads that are congested. ... Since he's been a commissioner, he's allowed infrastructure to deteriorate."

Simon said the industry's support shows he is even-handed and understands the complexity of growth management. He said many incumbents in county governments get a similar share of contributions because the donors are familiar with their work.

But Simon has touted the industry support less than other groups' endorsements, such as police unions. Simon also expressed ambivalence on the support from the industries.

"I don't know if you would call it a good thing or a bad thing," Simon said of the heavy contributions. "It depends on your perspective."

The builders backed Simon despite a summer dispute over tougher development standards that led some builders to suggest finding an opponent against him. Indeed, key association leaders have aided Cox, too. PBA president Alex Mourtakos' Southern Image Homes gave $500 to Cox. Developer Alex Deeb, who leads the builders political committee, has given Cox at least $4,500, using nine of his companies. He has given at least $500 to Simon.

Deeb was out of the office last week and unavailable for comment, according to his office. Mourtakos did not return a message seeking comment. In August, though, Mourtakos told the Times that builders were comfortable working with Simon in rapidly growing Pasco.

Simon said his tenure has laid the foundation for much stronger controls on development, eventually making roads less clogged and neighborhoods better planned. But making the changes takes years to do, he said, and Cox oversimplifies the complexity of managing growth.

"This isn't something that gets changed and implemented in a year," he said.

David DeCamp can be reached at 727 869-6232 or ddecamp@sptimes.com.