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Penny for Pasco remains an idea, while host of local needs ignored

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 13, 2002

County commissioners added seven numbers together and missed the correct answer by more than $14-million.

It's a symbolic faux pas for two reasons. Nobody seems to have a good grasp on the enormity of the capital spending needs in Pasco County. And, the correct tally for the seven listed projects is just too darn scary -- $66.6-million.

Forget the occult. This figure is frightening for its brevity. It does not include fire stations or trucks, police cars or communications equipment, coastal land preservation, roads, or sidewalks.

Schools? No way.

Instead, the quick-hit list included $20-million for parks and recreation facilities and $8-million for libraries, costs not covered by impact fees expected to be adopted later this year; $16.5-million for an addition to the West Pasco Judicial Center; $4.1-million to pay off the new voting equipment acquired in December, but financed over several years; $4-million for sheriff's buildings delayed from the current budget; and up to $14-million to preserve land through central Pasco to be used as a wildlife corridor.

Commissioners added these figures Thursday morning and arrived at $52-million. Never mind the new math. More importantly, commissioners passed on an obvious way to pay for the projects -- asking voters to approve a sales tax increase.

The decision left another math formula undiscussed. Increasing the sales tax rate from 6 to 7 percent would produce a projected $24-million annually for county construction projects. Put another way, just three years of higher sales tax revenues would wipe out the commissioners' project list and leave dollars available for other improvements. Or splitting the money with the school district would complete the work in six years.

But, the Penny for Pasco, under discussion for four years, remains just that -- something to talk about. Only commissioners Peter Altman and Ann Hildebrand advocated putting the measure on the November ballot. Commissioners Steve Simon and Pat Mulieri, who face re-election this year, said the tax proposal shouldn't come during a recession.

Ted Schrader worried the debate over Sen. John McKay's plan to eliminate sales tax exemptions and reduce the statewide rate from 6 percent to 4 percent would confuse the Pasco electorate.

The proposal might resurface in 2004. We'll see. Instead, commissioners staked out a position contrary to previous county sentiment.

Just three years ago, county officials lamented that a sales tax increase could fund capital costs only. Where is the money to hire the new personnel for parks and libraries? There was talk of lobbying for a change in the state law to allow sales tax proceeds to include operations. Then-Sheriff Lee Cannon unsuccessfully sought a similar change in 1998.

Thursday morning, commissioners told the county staff to find ways to tighten spending in the annual budget to finance additional capital projects. In other words, instead of worrying about spending more for personnel because of new projects, county administrators now must find ways to limit spending on salaries, insurance, utilities, supplies and other overhead to free up dollars for parks, libraries and public safety buildings.

It is a tall order. Currently, the county sets aside $4.5-million, from its $133-million general fund, to pay for capital construction. (That's nearly four years worth of allocations just to pay for the West Pasco Judicial Center expansion.) The flexibility is limited. Half the general fund is allocated each year to the sheriff, property appraiser, circuit court clerk, and supervisor of elections.

It also means a complete change in commission attitude. In order to avoid a property tax increase in the current year, guess what commissioners chose to trim from their budget?

Capital spending.

They delayed construction of a communications building and a forensics lab for the sheriff's office and financed the costs of $4.5-million in voting machines.

Commissioners are kidding themselves if they think capital improvements will increase significantly with current revenues. And, they still don't have a handle on the extent of spending needed.

Here's a few samples. Hildebrand would like the county to expand the prescription drug program at the Good Samaritan clinic. Sheriff Bob White said he needs a multimillion-dollar communication system. A proposal to add an Animal Control shelter in west Pasco gets shelved annually. And, the state passed on acquiring 1,446 acres of coastal Pasco County to the Florida Forever program because there was no matching dollars.

Altman advocates streetlights, sidewalks, traffic signals and intersection improvements. He even pointed to the benefits of having well-lighted street signs like those in Pinellas County.

Of course, it's easy to envy Pinellas' infrastructure.

"Remember," said County Administrator John Gallagher, "they passed the penny (sales tax) twice."

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