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Citrus Tax Collector

The two candidates to replace Norine Gilstrap have different opinions on this office's performance under her tenure.

By JOSH ZIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 1, 2000


The tax collector's race pits a newcomer to Citrus County against a well-known community activist.

They are successful professionals eager to succeed longtime Tax Collector Norine Gilstrap, who inherited the office from her deceased husband in the mid-1970s and never ceded it.

Democrat Lee Cooper, 53, and Republican Janice Warren, 48, both emerged from crowded fields to reach the general election. No other office attracted so many candidates -- six Democrats and four Republicans.

Warren, a former SunTrust Bank vice president, arguably made the strongest showing. Against three rivals with significant name recognition -- cable television producer Stephan Parker, former school board member Mark Stone and former local hospital administrator Steve Visalli -- she advanced while avoiding a runoff.

Cooper, a certified public accountant who specializes in recouping overcharges by vendors and government agencies, had a slightly tougher time. Despite garnering 42 percent of the vote, he was forced into a runoff against former Crystal River City Council member Richard Brady, which he won by a margin greater than a 2-1.

Warren ran on a platform offering financial experience and an ability to turn the tax collector's office into a more modern, customer-friendly version of what Gilstrap created over the past 26 years. She calls Gilstrap a role model for women.

Cooper, who moved to Crystal River from Orlando three years ago, has been more critical of Gilstrap's tenure.

Instead of depositing millions of dollars in fees and tax collections in local bank branches, she should have been investing the money in accounts bearing higher interest, such as the Florida State Board of Administration, he said. Despite her connection to SunTrust Bank, Warren promised to consider alternatives.

Both support statewide efforts to hook tax collector offices to the Internet, which would provide easy access to information and allow people to pay taxes and registration fees electronically.

Underlining their eagerness to win -- and serve a four-year term that will pay nearly $99,000 next year -- Cooper and Warren both spent considerable sums of money on campaigns with heavy advertising blitzes.

Warren, who spent $27,000, according to campaign finance reports, mailed out fliers to all registered Republican households. Cooper plastered his face -- and his granddaughter's -- on commercial-sized billboards overlooking major county roads.

But the drain of constant campaigning has been overtaken by energizing victories.

"I feel like there are 78,000 people I've been interviewing with for five months for a job and there are many more I want to meet," said Warren.

"I am optimistic," she said. "This has been a four-year undertaking for me and, obviously, I walked away from a very successful career to do this. It's something I'm very qualified to do and something I very much want to do."

Warren began the race as an experienced public speaker. Cooper entered the race as a political neophyte, a soft-spoken person who still gushes at the thought of people -- strangers -- voting for him.

"Tomorrow I start a new campaign," Cooper said the night of his victorious runoff on Oct. 10 as his eyes welled with tears. "I just feel on top of the world now."

THE JOB

The tax collector oversees an office that processes county property tax payments, as well as registration fees for cars, hunting and fishing licenses and others. Next year's salary, which is set by the state, will be nearly $99,000.

REPUBLICAN

JANICE WARREN, 48, was born in Jacksonville and moved to Citrus County in 1972. She graduated from Brevard Community College and the Florida School of Banking at the University of Florida. She resigned this year as a SunTrust Bank vice president. She is married and has two children. ASSETS: house, property and savings. LIABILITIES: credit card and mortgages. SOURCE OF INCOME: wages, mortgage interest and rental earnings. E-MAIL ADDRESS: voteforjanice@yahoo.com. WEB SITE: http://janicewarren.com.

DEMOCRAT

LEE COOPER, 53, was born in Indiana and raised in Panama City. A certified public accountant since 1972, he majored in accounting at Florida State University and received a master's degree in business administration from the University of Oklahoma. Cooper moved to Crystal River three years ago from Orlando. He is married and has two grown children. ASSETS: home, investments and business. LIABILITIES: mortgages and auto loan. SOURCE OF INCOME: accounting practice. E-MAIL ADDRESS: leecooper@infi.net. WEB SITE: http://www.chronicleonline.com/leecooper/index.html.

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