tampabay.com

State budget is criticized

Florida Tax Watch says $9.4-million worth of "turkeys" are planned for Pasco.

By DAVID DECAMP and JODIE TILLMAN
Published May 23, 2007


The Legislature carved out $9.4-million for Pasco County that might as well come with dressing and gravy, according to Florida Tax Watch's list of unjustified budget "turkeys" released Tuesday.

Most notably, Florida Tax Watch attacked $7.5-million to bring new jobs to Pasco and $1-million for a recreation center in New Port Richey.

The money to attract companies was not requested by the governor or the state's economic development agency. The recreation center money did not go through a grant process, and it was not requested by a state agency.

The criticism put local officials on the defensive as they hope to evade Gov. Charlie Crist's first line-item vetoes.

"Tax Watch, God bless them, we go through this every year," said state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who negotiated the $7.5-million into the budget as a committee chairman late in the session. "I'm not surprised what Tax Watch does. They're totally irrelevant in this process."

But even supporters had to admit the budget items were irregular.

In their pitch for $1-million, New Port Richey officials and local state legislators emphasized the facility's use as a hurricane shelter. The center was built to withstand winds of more than 170 mph. It is equipped with generators and a large kitchen.

But it will not be an official public shelter in Pasco County. Emergency services director Jim Martin said the facility is in a level D evacuation zone -- an area at risk for storm surges during Category 4 or 5 hurricanes. That does not meet American Red Cross shelter standards.

City officials have said city workers and their families could seek refuge in the building.

New Port Richey council member Ginny Miller said she was surprised to hear that Tax Watch criticized the lack of a grant application process to get the $1-million. But she also was surprised when local legislators approached the city in the first place. She said she'd never known them to ask the city for a wish list.

"They came in and made a point that they had some high appointments" to powerful committees, she said.

Fasano said the spending requests went through proper legislative procedures. A lot of spending makes the budget without being requested by the governor, he said.

The $7.5-million to lure corporations to Pasco sprung from the county's loss in December of a research center venture involving drug-maker Merck and the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute.

The irony of the criticism, Fasano said, is Tax Watch receives money from corporations that benefit from business incentives and tax breaks.

County Commissioner Ted Schrader, who led Pasco's request for the state jobs money, acknowledged it was unusual for one county to get such a pot of money. But he said new industry would benefit the region, and noted Pasco has pledged to add $2.5-million to the pot.

"Pasco County has always been the low man on the totem pole, if you will, in the tri-county area," Schrader said. "Now that we finally have some representatives in key positions that are able to earmark an appropriation for Pasco County, we just feel like it's our turn."

David DeCamp can be reached at (727) 869-6232 or ddecamp@sptimes.com.

'Turkeys' in Pasco County
Florida Tax Watch of Tallahassee picked five budget items for Pasco County as questionable spending by the Legislature. It recommends vetoes or closer review by Gov. Charlie Crist.

Item

Amount Criticism
County job incentive fund $7.5-million Not requested by agency or governor
New Port Richey recreation center $1-million Not part of grant process or request by agency or governor
Regional hurricane shelter $750,000 Not part of grant process, agency or governor request
Connections job development $100,000 No agency or governor request
PACK summer camp $50,000 Further review by governor recommended