County to weigh 2-cent gas tax
By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
INVERNESS -- The county has an ambitious, $74-million plan to improve county roads over the next five years.
It also has a problem.
By the middle of 2004, the county will have pledged all its revenues and exhausted its borrowing powers, lacking the funding to finish the rest of the road projects on time.
So County Administrator Richard Wesch recently offered the County Commission his 2 cents: a plan that would require everyone filling up at a Citrus County gas pump to give the same.
Wesch has suggested the county explore a 2-cent increase to the local option gas tax, which would raise about $860,000 a year, county budget director Cathy Taylor said.
The money would go toward widening old roads and building new ones, projects that can reach $1.2-million per mile by the time land acquisition, engineering and construction costs are added up, Wesch said.
Without an injection of additional dollars, Wesch said, the county would have to scale back the transportation plan and push some projects off to later years.
"Commencing in 2004, we're going to have unfunded needs, and we need to plan as to how we're going to address those needs, starting now," Wesch told the Times last week.
Citrus drivers already pay 6 cents per gallon in county gas tax, plus nearly 40 cents a gallon in other state and federal taxes. Adding a few pennies more to the local gas tax would require a super-majority vote by at least four of the five county commissioners.
The issue is expected to come to commissioners for a public hearing next March or April, Wesch said. In the meantime, he will have to show a fiscally conservative commission and a tax-wary public that their 2 cents are needed.
And all in an election year.
"I think it's going to be a demonstrating and convincing project on behalf of all of us in government," said Wesch, who will explain the proposal when he visits homeowners' groups or appears on Key TV. "Any time you approach the citizenry for a tax, there is a question as to whether existing resources are being effectively utilized."
There is no single factor driving the talk of a gas tax increase, but consider this:
The county has three major road-widening projects -- County Road 491, County Road 486 and Croft Road -- starting in the next few years. It will have to borrow $18.9-million to finish all three.
Part of the county's road widening costs come from moving water and sewer pipes that are in the way. At first the county considered passing those costs on to its 4,600 water and 2,200 sewer customers in the form of significantly higher utility rates. Then a consultant suggested the county move the pipes with $4.7-million in existing gas tax revenue instead. Commissioners agreed, but said they would have to decide how to pay for the road projects that would have used that money.
The county's transportation plan accounts for nearly half of the $166-million Capital Improvement Program, a thick list of the county's major purchases and projects for the next five years. Aside from roads, the CIP has grown in recent years to include the $2.4-million Stovall building for the property appraiser and tax collector, and a $3.75-million loan for the sheriff's emergency radio system.
The CIP also includes everything from new parks and firetrucks to expansions at the airports and the landfill. Revenues pour in from property taxes, impact fees, gas tax, grants, loans and other sources.
The growing county has explored other revenue sources in recent years. Since January 2001, the County Commission has more than doubled the impact fees charged to all new construction. The impact fee for transportation projects rose from $893 to $1,430 for each new single-family home.
Commissioners also tossed around the idea last year of a 1-cent increase to the sales tax, but the talk fizzled as public opposition became apparent. A sales tax increase would have to go to voters, although a gas tax hike would not.
Meanwhile, commissioners have held the ad valorem tax rate steady for the past three years and decreased it the previous two. Commission Chairman Jim Fowler, for one, is loath now to raise it.
"I know that if we are going to live up to our responsibilities in providing for the growth in the future, we're going to have to find sources of revenue," Fowler said. "And I would not be in favor of raising ad valorem tax rates."
Defining the need
Before he weighs in on the proposed gas tax increase, Fowler said he needs more information about the county's transportation needs and costs. At his suggestion, the County Commission decided several months ago to seek a consultant to map out the county's transportation needs for the next 25 years.
"When we get the report back from the consultant on the transportation plan, I think we'll have a clearer picture on that," Fowler said. "One thing for sure is we're going to have to have a revenue source for the challenges we're facing in terms of growth."
Commissioner Gary Bartell has other questions. How long would the additional gas tax revenue be needed? Could the 2-cent hike be sunsetted at some point?
"One of the things that's wrong with government is that we pass taxes and they never seem to go away," Bartell said. "We need to identify where the dollars will be used and for what duration of time."
And with both Fowler and Bartell seeking reelection this year, this issue could become a topic on the campaign trail.
"I think it may be a campaign issue," said Joyce Valentino, one of the Republican challengers facing Fowler. "I've talked to people, and they don't want a 1-cent sales tax, and they don't want a 2-cent gas tax. They think that with the budget and the contingency fund, the County Commission should be able to run things without raising taxes."
Like the commissioners, Valentino wants to know more about the transportation needs before taking a position on the gas tax.
"I would have to be shown that it was absolutely necessary," she said.
John Thrumston, a Republican whose mantra is less taxes and less government, also wants to hear more about the need.
"I'm just not a big advocate of raising any taxes," said Thrumston, who is also vying for Fowler's seat. "There really needs to be some convincing evidence to raise the gas tax."
Scott Adams, an independent candidate running for Fowler's seat, wonders whether enough impact fee revenue is going toward roads.
"The issue is going to come up, because we are going to need our road growth in Citrus County to handle the traffic and influx of people, but I think we need to try as hard as we can to stay away from (a gas tax increase)," Adams said.
Phillip Mulrain, the Democratic challenger facing Bartell, said he could support a 2-cent gas tax increase if the money went strictly toward road improvements.
"We do need improvements for our roads, no question about that," Mulrain said. "I'd like to see Grover Cleveland widened now before it costs an arm and a leg."
Although Fowler agreed the gas tax could become a campaign trail topic, he said the issue should be decided on its merits, not by its politics.
"You can't just ignore things because it may make you unpopular," Fowler said. "You have to do what you think is right."
-- Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached at 860-7303 or email@example.com.
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