Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Hillsborough County Property Appraiser candidates debate in Tampa

Posted By on Wed, Oct 31, 2012 at 7:34 PM

Ronda Storms
  • Ronda Storms
Although the circumstances that created an open seat in the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser's office were something of a media sensation, the race to replace Rob Turner in that role has been anything but.

Turner, you'll recall, was ousted by fellow Republican Ronda Storms in the August primary election after serving 16 years in the position. It was the public's way of showing disgust with his behavior, after it was revealed that he had shared "lurid" texts and emails with a former girlfriend who just happened to be the office's human resources director (including exchanges after he was married). Turner said because all the communications between himself and Carolyn Filippone were done off company time and company equipment it didn't reflect on his job performance, but the GOP electorate didn't agree.

At Wednesday afternoon's candidates forum between Storms, Democrat Bob Henriquez, and Independent candidate James DeMio at the Tampa Club, only state Sen. Storms mentioned Turner, and she did so freely, saying she wants to clean up the office.

"You might think that's what caused me to run, but that's not it," she told the crowd consisting of members of the Kiwanis Club of Tampa and the Hillsborough County League of Women Voters about Turner's fall from grace. "The headlines explained to me what I'd already known."

She added that she had worked with "multiple constituents" who have had bad experiences with Turner regarding their property appraisals.

She told the story of how the owners of the Ruskin Drive-In Theatre were threatened by an assessment that went from $174,217 to $814,425 in one year, causing a public backlash after the then St. Petersburg Times reported on it. She also mentioned how Turner pulled the Homestead Exemption of seven separate surviving widows and widowers for more than a year before a subsequent public outcry killed that proposal (both items were mentioned in a campaign mailer she used against Turner in the primary).

Bob Henriquez
  • Bob Henriquez
Bob Henriquez, a Democrat from West Tampa, has been raking in the endorsements (as he made sure to mention during the forum), but some analysts say he remains the underdog, not having ran for public office since 2004. He admitted that it's doubtful he'd be running for the office if Turner didn't have those issues, but he has refrained from speaking about him at all in his campaign.

Henriquez and Storms have said virtually nothing critical about each since they entered the race in late spring, and that sense of bonhomie continued during today's debate.

The three candidates were asked their take on all of the constitutional amendments that deal with property taxes in some fashion or another (four are on the ballot), specifically Amendment 4. Amendment 4 would reduce property taxes for some homeowners, though officials in local government in Florida fear its passage would further reduce their revenues. But advertised as providing more potential tax relief for homeowners, and it's no surprise that all three candidates support the measure.

As part of the GOP-led Legislature in 2011, Storms voted to put all 11 amendments on this year's ballot, and said she strongly stood behind every one of them.

Henriquez said he has concerns about changing the state Constitution in such a "hodge-podge" fashion, but supported all of the measures regarding property taxes.

DeMio explained why he supported Amendment Four, "Being in real estate, buyers that I've been working with looking at a retail strip or an apartment building or small office. They don't like seeing variables or expenses coming at them so I think that would add an incentive for people to make a move off the fence buying, which would have a ripple effect on our economy."

On several occasions, DeMio boasted that he was the only candidate with 20 years of real estate experience. After the forum, one observer sitting next to CL questioned why such a position should be an elected one, saying that in his opinion none of the candidates' credentials were sufficient for the role.

Henriquez' key line was that all of the taxpayers of the county "own the office," and that they were making a "hiring decision."

"It really shouldn't be a political office, " he said. "Your assessments are not Democratic assessments or Republican assessments. They're just fair and just, or not."

Sen. Storms has been a traditional nemesis for Hillsborough Democrats going back to her days on the County Commission (she was elected to the state Senate in 2006). But she's run a disciplined race so far, doing nothing to antagonize liberals or the media.

She did take exception to the charge made by a member of the audience that she could be considered a "career politician," calling herself a career public servant, and emphasizing that life was not that grandiose for herself until she was elected to county commission in 1998.

"I started off as a high school English teacher making $14,000 a year, by the way," she said.

Calling herself a proven reformer, she said she refused her salary every year while serving in the Legislature and would do the same as property appraiser. She later clarified to CL that she meant to say that she had "cut" her salary in Tallahassee, and would do the same if elected (a state legislator makes $29,000 a year — the property appraiser more than $150,000).

There is a fourth candidate in the race, Independent Rob Townsend, who made a run for the office in 2008. He did not appear at Wednesday's forum.

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