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Columns

Who pays for road to high school? Don't ask

By C.T. BOWEN Editor of Editorials
Published February 25, 2007


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Pasco County Administrator John Gallagher and School Superintendent Heather Fiorentino are working on their don't-ask-don't-tell relationship.

Don't ask for an expedited answer.

Don't tell us what to do.

That was the standoff at mid week as the county's Development Review Committee met to decide the fate of a proposed high school in Hudson, north of State Road 52 and east of Little Road.

The DRC - Gallagher, his top assistants and a school district representative - earlier had delayed finding the high school site consistent with the county's comprehensive land use plan after hearing not-in-my-backyard objections from nearby residents. Gallagher, overstepping his authority, asked the DRC to kick it back to the School Board to hear additional comments from the neighbors.

Funny things happen when the DRC continues a public hearing. In the five-week interim, the county staff report recommending approval of the high school morphed into a denial.

It's the kind of inexplicable reversal we've come to expect in Port Richey, not in Pasco County.

County Attorney Robert Sumner acknowledged he wanted the staff report altered, citing a letter from the School Board demanding a quick answer to the consistency review after the DRC had punted the issue.

Unresolved was the issue of who would pay for the transportation improvements needed to get 1,900 students, plus faculty and staff to and from the high school site each day. The price tag for the turn lanes, intersection improvements and a new road connecting Little Road to the student parking lot is estimated at more than $4-million.

Florida's Sunshine Law apparently helped thaw the testy discourse. The school district offered $2.2-million. At least, they did during a public meeting Thursday. Gallagher said Fiorentino previously told him the district wouldn't contribute any money toward the required road work.

But even an olive branch can be slippery to grasp.

To pay for disputed off-site improvements, the county and school district signed a contract several years back in which the county agreed to cover the costs in exchange for the district's share of a fuel sale tax that amounted to about $120,000 annually over the past three years. A reasonable person would see what a one-sided deal that has become. The county would need more than 15 years worth of fuel tax payments to finance this high school's roads.

Fiorentino, however, cited that agreement to the DRC as a rationalization for her position. Yeah, but that agreement was intended for sidewalks and other relatively minor expenses, Gallagher countered.

The strained diplomacy is understandable. It's the kind of multimillion-dollar price tag not usually borne by the public whether the purse strings are held by the county government or the school district. For the most part, Pasco's new school sites are tied to new housing developments with many of the ancillary transportation costs absorbed by developers using the same access routes.

But the new high school in Hudson is intended to help ease crowding in urbanized west Pasco, the demographics of which are changing from retiree heavy to families with school-age children.

Hence, the district's battle with the neighbors over location and with the county over road costs.

The two sides are nearly $2-million apart on who pays for what. Fiorentino says state law prohibits the district from paying for off-site improvements. The county already is looking at delaying hundreds of millions of dollars worth of road construction over the next five years and now may face a call from state lawmakers to cap their annual budget growth. Meanwhile, Gov. Charlie Crist said school districts should be exempt from Legislature-authorized changes to property tax collections.

Figure this relationship between the 25-year county administrator and the three-year school superintendent still is evolving:

Don't ask us to pay for anything.

Don't tell us you can't afford it.

[Last modified February 25, 2007, 07:18:15]


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