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Divided districts penalize Pasco, New Port Richey


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001

In many ways, Pasco County and its largest city, New Port Richey, are mirror images.

They fret about economic development, space for youth activities and public safety staffing. They let wildly unpopular issues (affordable housing for the county; road paving assessments for the city) drag on interminably.

They also are similar in their existence in the political food chain. They are bottom feeders. Each is divided among multiple districts for higher levels of government.

Pasco County's bane is the state Senate. It currently is divided among three districts, none of which has a majority of its population based here. As a result, no state senator calls Pasco County home.

That is expected to change when the Legislature finishes redrawing its district lines next year. Rep. Mike Fasano, the House majority leader, already has begun campaigning for the Senate seat that doesn't exist yet.

Portions of New Port Richey, meanwhile, fall into three County Commission districts. Though commissioners are elected countywide, they must reside in one of five districts.

There is some sentiment that the city's political pull with the county has been diminished over the years by not having all 14,000 residents in a single commission district.

"The actual, practical results ... is that they've often overlooked the taxpayers of the city," said Peter Altman, county commissioner and former New Port Richey mayor. "But it's as much about personalities, or things I did (as mayor) to aggravate them, or that the city didn't charge transportation impact fees as anything else."

True. Altman and New Port Richey often butted heads with the county during his city government tenure, including disputes over library funding, emergency services, road improvements and tourist tax spending. The city seemed to lack a solid ally, even though the county administrator lived in New Port Richey and three commissioners had district constituents there.

Conversely, Dade City flourished with Sylvia Young as sole representative on the commission. The county refurbished the historic courthouse, built a new administration building and set aside money to remodel the County Courthouse -- all in downtown Dade City. Another train of thought is that a locale is better off with multiple representatives serving it instead of one person doing it exclusively. If the pols really believe that, why is Fasano working to make sure Pasco gets its own Senate seat?

Fasano's efforts and the premature campaign kickoff from congressional hopeful Chuck Kalogianis certainly have sparked an early interest in where political boundary lines will be drawn by the Legislature. It's not so eagerly anticipated on the county level.

"I was hoping nobody was going to ask," said Election Supervisor Kurt Browning, who acted as sort of a referee on redistricting matters previously.

Under state law, the County Commission must be divided into five districts of nearly equal population. Each district had about 56,000 residents after the 1990 Census. Each will have about 66,000 or more after the County Commission/School Board boundaries are drawn again. The lines must be drawn in an odd-numbered year so the redistricting does not conflict with an election. A current officeholder cannot be gerrymandered out of a district. Browning said he would again insist the county and School Board use the same boundary lines, although it is not a state requirement. He also prefers that it be done in 2003 because new legislative and congressional districts will be in effect for the 2002 elections.

County Administrator John Gallagher, however, said the county would begin the process soon after census data becomes available this spring.

New boundaries for the commission "is not that big a deal except in terms of voter confusion, which is a big deal," Browning said.

However, it could become a big deal in terms of constituent service because the resident commissioner becomes the focal point for complaints and compliments about county government performance. For instance, Commissioner Pat Mulieri's massive central Pasco district stretches from near Zephyrhills toward Moon Lake. But it also contains the leading growth areas of the county -- Wesley Chapel and south-central Pasco.

The western boundary of District 2 could move significantly closer to Mulieri's Gowers Corner home, which would remove Shady Hills from her district. It's an area where Mulieri has worked hard trying to bring better services.

The redistricting wouldn't be unique to Shady Hills. This tiny community known for its poor roads and high levels of poverty is actually split into two separate state districts for the Florida House of Representatives.

Talk about a bottom feeder.

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