Economic growth in commission's hands

Published May 27, 2007

Pasco County commissioners will get a chance to put their money where their mouths are. After learning state legislators had approved a budget containing $7.5-million for an incentive fund to lure new business to Pasco County, commissioners agreed immediately to pony up $2.5-million of county money.

The generosity came even though the state allocation didn't require a match. The motivation, Commissioner Ted Schrader said at the time, was for Pasco to keep its earlier commitment to economic development.

Commissioners will get another chance to reaffirm that commitment after Gov. Charlie Crist correctly vetoed the state money. Not that we don't champion economic development for Pasco, but a multimillion-dollar appropriation for a single county put other locales, notably Hernando and Citrus, also part of Sen. Mike Fasano's Senate district, at an unfair disadvantage.

Fasano's idea to rework the appropriation next year as an incentive fund available to regions outside of the state's wealthy metropolitan centers is more appropriate.

Pasco needs to be prepared to tap into that fund if the state establishes it or the county must be ready to help itself if state assistance does not materialize. The commission should maintain its $2.5-million commitment to an incentive fund. Additionally, commissioners should consider a similar-sized allocation in successive years to build the fund to what the state had promised over the next three budget years.

It is understood that county budget uncertainties abound because of what might emerge from a special legislative session in Tallahassee next month on property taxes. Public safety, parks, libraries and other services will be competing for a share of what could be a stagnate or shrinking general revenue fund.

But commissioners also should consider the importance of economic development. Pasco is a live-here, work-there community in which 46 percent of its work force travels elsewhere for a job. County wealth has long been reliant on transfers of government money via Social Security and Medicare payments. Two years ago, a consultant briefed commissioners that Pasco's annual wage ranked 356th against the country's 361 metropolitan areas.

It is a problematic scenario as economic growth is too dependent upon a growing population instead of industrial expansion. Money that should stay local is spent in neighboring counties as commuters shop, eat, and use professional services near their jobs instead of near their homes.

Over the past several years commissioners have reversed a short-shrift attitude toward industrial recruitment. Allocations to the Economic Development Commission have increased steadily. (The EDC wants a $100, 000 increase in the coming year to $530, 000). The county included designated employment centers within its rewritten comprehensive land use plan to set aside 100- to 200-acre parcels to offer for potential corporate campuses. Discussion of a county-owned industrial park never materialized, but the recent failed flirtation with H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute and the legislative request for incentive money helped create a buzz among commissioners, legislators and others to refocus on economic development.

Now, the question: Will commissioners turn the buzz into bucks?