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A Times Editorial

Gasoline tax proposal needs verifiable plan

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 30, 2002

County Administrator Richard Wesch's idea to raise the county portion of taxes collected from the sale of gasoline by 2 cents, and to use that $860,000 per year to pay for road improvements, has merit.

What the proposal doesn't have yet, and most certainly will need if the Citrus County Commission agrees there is no other place to find the money, is a detailed vision and a marketing plan.

The commission has time to ensure both are in place if they follow Wesch's suggestion to enact the tax hike next spring. But success will depend on whether they persuade the public that the roads need to be built or repaired, that the revenue raised will be sufficient, and that the money will not be squandered.

To that end, we recommend the commission and Wesch consider incorporating some or all of the following suggestions as they ponder moving forward with this idea.

Before acting on anything else, the commissioners must believe, and later educate the public, that a gas tax is the most fair way to pay for road projects. Unlike a sales tax increase, the commission can enact a gas tax without approval of the voters; it requires only that four of the five commissioners, or a "super majority," agree.

They must anticipate that opponents of the tax will decry that authority, and then accept their responsibility to act in the best interest of their community, even if it is unpopular.

All taxes are regressive, but some are more regressive than others. Rather than a sales tax, which everyone pays on almost every purchase, a gas tax ensures the people who benefit the most -- those who drive the most and inflict wear and tear on the roads -- pay the most. Simply put, a gas tax is a user fee, which makes it more equitable, even for those who traditionally rail against all taxes.

The tax must be for a limited time. This provides the public the opportunity to evaluate whether the money has been spent as promised, and forces commissioners -- present and future -- to justify continuing the term of the tax.

If the gas tax is enacted next year, as Wesch would prefer, it should be sunset after four years. That way decisions about renewing or retiring the tax will be made during an odd-numbered, non-election year.

Commissioners should instruct Wesch and his staff to compile a list of the roads that will be repaired, improved or constructed, and to assign a realistic cost estimate for each project that takes into account inflation. This comprehensive list also should assign a priority to each road and include approximate start-finish dates.

All this information should be shared with the public and its progress made readily accessible, perhaps on the county's Web site.

In addition, the commissioners should require the county administrator, the Public Works director and the county engineer to report quarterly on the status of the projects to ensure the work does not fall too far behind.

The commission should consider appointing a panel of residents to monitor the work of the staff as it draws up guidelines for the road plan. Citizen involvement inspires trust and confidence that the process is fair and achieveable.

Finally, if the gas tax is enacted and a plan of action is in place, it must be sacred. The commission and its staff cannot allow any special interests to interfere with the road repair schedule. The slightest hint of favoritism or political patronage will subvert the work that needs to be done, irreparably damaging -- and rightfully so -- the commission's credibility.

The importance of having an adequate road system cannot be overstated. Collector roads, as well as secondary and residential roads, are essential to the public's safety and the economy. Without a solid road network, new residents and businesses, both of which create jobs, will be hesitant to locate here for fear other segments of the county's infrastructure, such as schools, parks and water and sewer services, also will be neglected.

The ultimate destiny of this proposal rests with the commission, but for now what is needed is a plan that is palatable for commissioners and their bosses, the voters. Candor, planning and specificity will go a long way toward reaching that goal.

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