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Growing county sought dollars

Among the proposals: two impact fees, one for new homes and one for parks; and a sales tax increase.

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 28, 2001


Labeled by some as the builders' buddy, Pasco County spent much of 2001 trying to sand down the rougher edges of rapid growth.

The County Commission took several stabs at new fees and sources of money to keep up with anticipated needs of a surging population.

Kicking off the list in February, commissioners approved a new $1,694-per-new-home impact fee for schools.

Builders complained that they would end up shouldering an unfair share of the cost of constructing classrooms. The fees, one-time charges for public amenities, are passed on to home buyers. The rising costs, builders said, could send new home buyers north to Hernando and Citrus counties.

That prospect didn't shake the commissioners or the school district, which is strapped with housing an ever-growing population of pupils, including thousands of students in more than 300 portable classrooms. Highlighting the expected need, in 2000 alone, builders pulled permits for almost 3,000 single-family houses.

But the commission didn't stop with classrooms. On the heels of the school impact fees, the county soon floated ideas for an impact fee for parks, a new property tax for parks and a 1-cent increase in the sales tax, dubbed "Penny for Pasco," for a host of needs.

New growth should pay for itself, argued County Administrator John Gallagher.

The parks impact fee, $892 per new home, finally got out of the box in December when the commission approved some recommendations from three advisory committees on its proposed ordinance and scheduled the first public hearing for early January.

Throughout the year, though, commissioners wrestled with other means to plug gaps that won't be filled by the parks impact fee, which will raise $20-million over 10 years. A consultant showed that the county will need another $20-million to build what it needs.

Enter the property tax idea by Commissioner Peter Altman, who argued that a proposed municipal service taxing unit, or MSTU, would help fill in the gaps and let existing residents share the burden for what the county has long lacked.

The tax would have amounted to 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed property. The owner of a house valued at $100,000, minus the $25,000 homestead exemption, would pay another $18.75 a year.

But the entire idea was grounded at a hearing in June where the commission shot it down on a 3-2 vote. Commissioner Steve Simon, speaking for the majority, said that unlike fire or police services, parks didn't meet the threshold in calling for a taxing district.

Instead, he favored putting Penny for Pasco -- raising the sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent -- to the voters on the ballot in November 2002. Simon worried that the property tax would turn the public against the sales tax question.

But Penny for Pasco was turned on its head after the terrorism attacks Sept. 11, which sent a limping economy into a tailspin. Both Simon and Commissioner Pat Mulieri began to argue that the time was bad to hit the public with a sales tax hike to help pay for libraries, schools, parks and roads.

Finally, Penny for Pasco went back on the table after a meeting in December where the rest of the commissioners said they wanted closure on the question. They agreed to hold a workshop on Penny for Pasco sometime in January.

Aside from searching for ways to raise more money, the commission found itself stumped on how to spend money, namely $6-million collected from a 2 percent tax on hotel rooms since 1991. Saddlebrook owner Tom Dempsey tried to persuade the county to use the money to build what he calls the Pasco National Tennis Center.

Dempsey has offered to manage the stadium and cover any potential operating losses, but county officials are wary that the deal would require hundreds of thousands of dollars in yearly subsidies from the county.

Instead, several commissioners said they're leaning toward sitting on the money.

In other areas, the county fought to remove blemishes from the face of growth.

Commissioners agreed this spring to pay $75,000 to a consultant to devise a master plan on communications towers to stem the spread of the bulky instruments. But at the plan's unveiling in November, consultant Ted Kreines of Kreines & Kreines Inc. of California was attacked by officials in the cell tower industry. They accused the report of being "inaccurate" and "confusing."

One of Kreines' suggestions included steering antennae to public rights of way to camouflage them on light poles, traffic signs or existing buildings.

The commissioners asked county attorneys to work with industry officials and Kreines, then return with a revised draft of the master plan.

Another setback came on the go-go bar front. The county had passed two ordinances that took effect in the spring, seeking to push adult businesses into industrial zones and to halt contact inside between employees and clients. But a federal judge halted the enforcement of the ordinances in December by granting an injunction in a lawsuit against the county.

The judge called the ordinances repressive. By pushing the businesses into industrial zones where alcohol is prohibited and tacking on a host of other restrictions, the judge said, it appeared the county was trying to drive the adult establishments out of business.

The county is appealing the decision while seeking possible revisions to its ordinances.

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