COURTESY : Tampa Tribune
LAND - O' LAKES - Sal Paradiso is fed up with the way things are being done behind his subdivision's walls.
Hoping to make a difference, he's running for a seat on the Oakstead Community Development District's five-member governing board.
"People are unhappy with some of the actions of the current board," the 25-year-old said. "They want to head in a different direction."
The New York native, who put down roots in this sprawling community of 1,200 homes about three years ago, wants to give something back.
"So I thought I'd throw my hat in the ring," he said.
Challenging him is Diane Davis, a 60-year-old retired office manager who moved into Oakstead about a year ago.
Davis has similar concerns about the direction of the community but argues she has more experience than her younger challenger.
"We need fresh blood on the board," she said. "And I don't want to say anything negative, but we need someone with more qualifications."
Come election day, both political newcomers will square off in one of a handful of contested races for seats on eight CDDs, special taxation districts that pocket the county's landscape like mini-townships.
Voters in Oakstead and seven other subdivisions - Lake Bernadette, Meadow Pointe, Heritage Pines, Heritage Springs, Lexington Oaks, the Groves and Northwood - go to the polls Nov. 7 to elect supervisors of the quasi-political CDD boards that govern them.
The denizens elected into CDD leadership wield tremendous power. They're the ones who decide how much residents pay in special tax assessments, for security patrols, new sidewalks and landscaping. They grapple with six-figure budgets and oversee thousands of dollars in tax revenue.
'Like Running A Small Town'
Most board members are compensated little, if anything, for serving two or four years as custodians of their communities.
"There's a lot of responsibility with this position," said Joseph Casio, 58, a retired engineering manager who is running unopposed for Oakstead's CDD. "It's basically like running a small town."
With its own convenience stores, parks, playgrounds and a new elementary school with classroom space for 1,200 students, Oakstead resembles a small municipality more than a subdivision.
One of several new neighborhoods carved from old cattle pastures and wilderness near the Suncoast Parkway during the past decade, Oakstead only recently began electing its board.
Until 2004, Don Buck, whose DEVCO Design & Development built the planned community, served as chairman of the CDD board. Two members of the development group are still on the board.
As with other subdivisions, Oakstead's board is one of several layers of government. The CDD panel appoints a landowners board; there's also a seven-member homeowners association.
Casio, who moved to the community several years ago, said finding qualified candidates to run for open seats is difficult. Apathy is the biggest problem.
"Most of the residents probably wouldn't even know who is running," he said. "We were worried that we wouldn't have people to run."
'Just Like Regular Candidates'
Unlike homeowners associations, CDD elections are public contests overseen by the county, which counts and certifies the ballots.
"They have to go through the same process as the candidates running for governor," said Kurt Browning, Pasco County's elections supervisor.
"They qualify just like regular candidates, either by petition or by fee, file regular contribution and expenditure reports and are subject to the same fines. They are like mini-county commissions."
The names of CDD candidates appear on specially printed ballots along with the local, state and congressional races, he said.
Taxpayers foot the bill, but Browning said the cost is "negligible."
Even so, the field is crowded this year.
And in years to come, it could get really crowded.
There are 23 candidates for CDD boards on the ballot, and that's only eight of the 35 special taxing districts currently on the county's books.
When the districts are created, the subdivision developers serve as the board for the first six years; members are elected after that.
During the next decade, the roster of CDD candidates could grow well beyond 100, eclipsing the ranks of those who run for the county commission, school board and other offices.
Browning said he's not concerned about the logistics; at least not yet.
"There's no difference between qualifying five candidates to run for office and qualifying 50," he said.
Fiefdom Or Tax Boon?
The special taxing districts - a popular financing tool for developers across the state - operate like independent government entities.
Typically, they're governed by a five-member board, initially selected by the developers, which has the authority to issue tax-free bonds and levy special taxes and assessments on the homeowners. They pay the additional fees along with their county and city property taxes.
The state Legislature passed the law creating the districts in 1980 to help relieve the burden of building new roads and installing water and sewer lines on cash-strapped local governments.
There are more than 300 CDDs in Florida, most of them in affluent subdivisions. Pasco has one of the state's largest concentrations.
Supporters say the special districts alleviate the development's financial burden on taxpayers in surrounding areas and enrich the county's tax base by creating upscale communities.
Critics say the districts act as private fiefdoms, providing no public scrutiny of potential conflicts of interest.
In some cases, residents who have bought into the subdivisions have complained they weren't told about the hidden cost of the special taxing districts before signing a closing contract.
"They're scamming the taxpayers," said Jan Bergemann, president of Cyber Citizens for Justice, a Volusia County-based advocacy group that tracks the progress of CDDs. "It's another layer of government."
Touting Change And Experience
Back in Oakstead, Sal Paradiso is gearing up for Election Day.
He's printed fliers on his personal computer and plans to go door-to-door next week to talk with voters.
Deed restrictions prohibit candidates from hanging political signs around the neighborhood and restrict other campaigning practices.
So he chats with his neighbors at meetings, social events and during nightly patrols as a security officer, building name recognition. The issues this year, as he sees it, are landscaping and taxes. "People are unhappy with status quo," he says. "They want change."
Davis, meanwhile, went around the block last week, handing out campaign literature and talking to neighbors.