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A Times Editorial

County needs to explore options for new revenue

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 10, 2003

A 24 percent jump in home construction starts indicates no building slowdown in Pasco County following the County Commission's aggressive move to enact new impact fees. But, it also signals an ever-increasing demand for services.

The county issued 4,786 permits for new single-family homes in 2002, its highest total since 1978, and 130 percent higher than six years ago when the most recent boom began.

The activity is good news for a vital part of the local economy. With few industrial jobs, the labor force is dominated by contractors, masons, carpenters, plumbers, roofers, electricians, landscape workers and others in the construction industry -- the backbone of Pasco's service-based economy. More permits means more work.

The growth also will contribute to a tax base increase, which has hovered around 10 percent the past few years. But residential growth brings challenges. Those new home buyers need roads on which to travel, schools to send their children, recreational space for budding athletes, library books to borrow and public safety in the event of an emergency.

It is why Pasco County adopted a school impact fee in 2001 and followed suit with new fees for parks and libraries last year. A proposed fee to offset the cost of fire protection and ambulance service is expected to be forwarded to county commissioners later this month. A consultant has been retained to update the transportation impact fee, and the commission is expected to do likewise with a law enforcement surcharge this year.

The road impact fee now stands at just more than $2,100 per single-family house and the school, parks and library fees combine for a little less than $2,800 per house. While the building industry bemoans the fees, the permit data shows that reasonable assessments for needed infrastructure do not diminish home building and do not push marginal qualifiers out of the home-buying market.

However, growth alone won't pay the infrastructure bill. Half the money required to implement the 10-year parks and libraries master plans, or $28-million, must come from sources other than impact fees.

The county is taking modest steps to meet that tab. Last year, the commission approved a one-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax increase, which took effect Jan. 1, to pay for street lighting and road maintenance even though escalating right of way costs have pushed state road projects completely off the five-year work program. The commission also set aside $900,000 in the current budget to save for construction of parks and libraries, about a third of which will be needed annually to meet the master plans' goals.

Some argue the inevitable growth in the tax base will accommodate those needs. Don't bet on it. Over the past several years, the expected windfall has been exhausted by, among other things, purchasing state-mandated voting equipment, hiring new deputies and increasing salaries at the Sheriff's Office, and even plugging money back into county coffers to offset reduced collections due to an error on property tax bills.

The strains from growth are most notable in education. Absent the requirements for prekindergarten on demand and smaller class sizes, as required by voter-approved constitutional amendments, the school district faces a $50-million shortfall in its building program just to keep pace with new student enrollment. That still doesn't eliminate the more than 300 portable classrooms in use around the county.

Simultaneously, environmental activists are seeking a land-buying and management program, fearing valuable real estate will be swallowed up by the building boom.

The needs are many. The resources are limited. Expecting new residents to foot the tab exclusively is unrealistic.

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