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A Times Editorial

Move could mean more convenience, efficiency

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 11, 2001

Tax Collector Mike Olson wants to improve government efficiency. To do so, could cost $1.15-million up front, plus the unknown expense of renovating a former retail nursery and crafts store into a functioning government office building.

The result would be a center offering one-stop shopping for the public to acquire driver's licenses and motor vehicle tags, register to vote, and potentially obtain homestead exemptions and pay traffic fines. All in a highly visible spot on U.S. 19 that is accompanied by a 120-space parking lot.

Acquiring the site of the former Frank's Nursery and Crafts is part of Olson's plan to take over driver's license functions from the state -- a service already assumed by 22 other tax collectors in Florida.

Today, Olson is scheduled to pitch his idea formally to Pasco County commissioners. The commission has the authority to buy the building; the state authorizes the driver's license takeover from the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Commissioners would be wise to proceed by seeking an updated appraisal of the 18,800-square-foot building. It does not commit them to a purchase, but sets a reasonable price. A year-old appraisal valued the building at $1.15-million, Olson said.

Buying the property is not without complications. For one, the corporate owners are in bankruptcy court, and there may be other suitors for the building. Renovation costs are unknown, but are expected to be several hundred thousand dollars.

The maneuver comes at an inopportune time as commissioners are close to finalizing their budget for the coming fiscal year. Olson proposes to cover the first year's costs of the building from the excess fees his office collects and turns over to the commissioners annually.

The size of the building is problematic. Olson acknowledges it is more space than he needs. Currently, his office operates in 6,000 square feet of leased space, costing $42,500 a year, next door to the vacant store. The Department of Motor Vehicles' west Pasco operation is contained in 3,000 square feet near Jasmine Boulevard.

Acquiring a building twice as big as the offices' current space allows Olson to offer room to Property Appraiser Mike Wells and Circuit Court Clerk Jed Pittman if they want it, plus move his own personal office and a couple of staffers from the West Pasco Government Center -- freeing up space there to offer driver's license functions as well.

If approved by the state, Olson would assume the 16 DMV workers in Pasco and close the state driver's license offices in Port Richey, Land O'Lakes and Dade City.

The merger makes sense. It is more convenient for the public and Olson has demonstrated previous efficiencies by generating approximately $1.5-million for county coffers in excess fees.

Buying the building gets Olson and the DMV out of leased space, which should be cheaper in the long run. But it also would remove a million-dollar property from the tax rolls, something sure to be lamented in the city of New Port Richey.

Past county acquisitions of private property, such as the Central Pasco Professional Center in Land O'Lakes and a vacant bank branch at Little Road and Government Drive in west Pasco, turned into political footballs. In those cases, however, the private sector sought to unload underutilized property and looked to the county for a bailout.

This time the impetus comes from improved public-sector efficiency, not a better bottom line for private interests. The commission should proceed accordingly.

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