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Penny sales tax needed for good park system

By C.T. BOWEN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001


It is the appropriate fallout from information released this week by a pair of county-retained consultants studying long-term public safety and recreation needs around Pasco County.

And any time you talk about long-term needs, the conversation turns to long-term spending and to Penny for Pasco. That is a proposed penny sales tax increase to finance infrastructure improvements for such things as education, recreation, transportation, public safety and environmental preservation. No official list has been compiled yet, although county commissioners have indicated a willingness to gather public comment on the sales tax issue in anticipation of a November 2002 ballot referendum.

But, back to the consultants. On Tuesday, the county released the DMG-Maximus study of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. This is the consultant retained after the Times reported in January 2000 that then-Sheriff Lee Cannon did not need a massive increase in the road patrol staff to attain the response time and levels of service he sought. The story followed the September 1998 voter defeat of Cannon's pitch to raise $80-million in property taxes to hire 220 deputies.

The consultant's findings mirrored the newspaper's that redeployment and better training would increase efficiency. The Sheriff's Office has an adequate staff, the report stated, and poised to handle the next 10-years of growth with minimal increases in the amount of personnel. It is significant because salary and benefits eats up the majority of the sheriff's annual budget, and law enforcement spending is the largest single item financed by property taxes in the county government budget.

We point all this out because of the affect it can have on voters in 2002. Cannon asked voters for a tax increase he didn't need. It breeds distrust in government and cynicism among the electorate.

Pasco voters expressed that sentiment in 1995 when they turned down a proposed penny sales tax to build new schools. Not needed, they said. How come proceeds from the Florida Lottery aren't taking care of schools?

We are aware that sales tax proceeds cannot be used to hire personnel, but could be used to buy patrol cars or communications equipment for law enforcement. But certainly we also must acknowledge the right wing of the Republican Party will have fresh fodder for their anti-tax efforts with information contained in the report on the sheriff's office.

A day after the law enforcement consultant's report became public record, details began to leak about the county's proposal for a new impact fee for county parks.

The full consultant's report is scheduled to go to the County Commission May 8, but it contains two distinct plans for future construction of parks. There is the "cost feasible" plan that carries a $40-million price tag, and a separate plan to bring most elements of the county park system to the minimum level offered elsewhere, according to a statewide survey. That plan would cost $74-million.

The biggest components are five 80-acre regional parks in Wesley Chapel, Trinity/Odessa, Dade City/San Antonio, Connerton, and Moon Lake/River Ridge. They would be larger versions of the 40-acre recreational center sites that now exist in Holiday, Hudson and Land O'Lakes.

The proposed impact fee of $890 per single-family home can only be spent on parks needed because of new growth. If the Penny for Pasco sales tax is approved, the county likely would tackle the more ambitious $74-million plan that includes upgrades at current sites as well.

Parents who have been unable to find a parking spot during the youth sports seasons, or who had their children placed on waiting lists because limited fields caps the number of children in soccer or baseball leagues will understand. Recreational centers need to be bigger to handle future expansion.

But the crowded conditions existing now won't be solved by the impact fee.

"You can't expect the guy coming in tomorrow to pay for today's problems," acknowledged Assistant County Administrator Dan Johnson.

So support for the penny sales tax is still imperative for an adequate parks system even if the commission adopts the recreation impact fee.

The timing of all this, though, is problematic. Builders are objecting after just swallowing a nearly $1,700 impact fee for schools. And before the 2002 referendum, commissioners also will consider impact fees for libraries and emergency services.

Is it too much to digest in too short a time? Maybe. But, nobody on the county level is ready to admit that.

"In many ways, we're a product of our success," said Commissioner Ann Hildebrand.

"The parks and libraries are one of the best things we have that sells the quality of life here and make people want to move here, but they need enhancement now."

Besides, approving an impact fee takes a majority on the five-member commission, as opposed to a majority in the voting booth.

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