tampabay.com

Sales tax idea not brilliant

By C.T. BOWEN
Published March 1, 2007


There was no chance of a speeding ticket on this day.

Driving from central Pasco toward Zephyrhills at mid-morning Tuesday became a 32-minute, 13-mile crawl along County Road/State Road 54 as eastbound traffic backed up from Eiland Boulevard to New River. It was no better in the other direction. Westbound motorists inched between Curley Road and Interstate 75.

This is Rep. Will Weatherford's route to and from work each day as he travels between his Lexington Oaks rental home and his district office in downtown Zephyrhills. The one highlight is the ongoing construction along CR 54 (Wesley Chapel Boulevard) where new lanes are being added to accommodate the traffic influx.

The state Department of Transportation, however, has not done the same and this week it formalized its list of construction delays because of rising prices. It pushed back road work planned for U.S. 41, U.S. 301 and Interstate 75. All three projects are in Weatherford's House District 61.

After the interminable commute - mine, not the legislator's - Weatherford was in his district office talking to a couple of Times journalists about proposed property tax reform. Counties and cities are spending too much money, he maintained, and homeowners are due some tax relief. Weatherford said he supports the House plan to eliminate property taxes altogether in favor of a 2.5-cent on the dollar increase in the sales tax.

"It's a brilliant idea," said Weatherford.

Brilliant? For a second, I thought I was watching a commercial for Guinness. Steve (Flat Tax) Forbes must be loving this.

We hasten to point out the conflict. The state highway network in Weatherford's own district is inadequate. So much so that Weatherford wants to relocate his district office to Wesley Chapel to cut down on his time in the car. The state doesn't have the money needed for its infrastructure. Meanwhile, the only east-west road near Weatherford's house that is under construction (CR 54) is financed, not by the state of Florida, but by Pasco County.

So, how come Tallahassee thinks it knows more about local spending issues than the people in local government?

They don't. If they did, they wouldn't be trying to eviscerate local government budgets.

Weatherford thinks the provisions of Senate Bill 360 requiring roads, schools and other necessary infrastructure to keep pace with growth will solve the highway woes in the coming years. He mentioned needing higher transportation impact fees and noted "we" haven't approved them yet.

"We" is the Pasco County Commission, not the Florida Legislature. Apparently, commissioners are to be lauded when considering higher impact fees to pay for road improvements, but are a bunch of ninnies when it comes to other spending decisions.

Weatherford should be commended for at least seeking appropriate counsel. He met with Pasco County Budget Director Mike Nurrenbrock earlier in the week and surely Nurrenbrock shared that commissioners have cut Pasco's general fund property tax rate by a third over the past several years.

"I feel bad," said the freshman legislator. "Pasco has been pretty good (financial) stewards."

He might feel bad, but not bad enough to reject the expanded sales tax plan. Weatherford's rationalization is that he is a representative for the entire state of Florida, not just District 61. That would be easier to swallow if he was elected statewide.

I'm guessing the registered voters closer to home might want to be given first priority. Think of the Zephyrhills area and you still think of mobile homes. There are nearly 30,000 mobile home owners in Pasco who this year were billed, on average, $216 in county general fund property taxes. They'll get stuck subsidizing the property tax cut for affluent waterfront home owners if this sales tax scheme is approved.

That's not counting 17,000 mobile homes in parks or other rental sites around Pasco whose owners pay to register their homes via state tags. Eliminating property taxes won't benefit them at all.

Still think it's a brilliant idea?