County roads could get boost through gas, property tax hikes

Henry Wilson was dead set against an additional tax on a gallon of gas last year, and he’s not changing his mind now.

However, the Pasco County commissioner could be alone in his convictions this time, as commission chair Jack Mariano hinted he might support raising that tax by 2 cents per gallon.

With county roads needing repair, Pasco County commissioners seem poised to add at least another 2 cents to its county gas tax.  (File Photo)

With county roads needing repair, Pasco County commissioners seem poised to add at least another 2 cents to its county gas tax.
(File Photo)

That would all but ensure the gas tax in Pasco County would go up, as four of the five commissioners are required to support it. Mariano had joined Wilson in opposition of it last year, which many — including their fellow commissioners — have blamed for continued deterioration of county roads this past year.

“When I went through this last year, I was asking how much do we really need, and how much do we really want,” Mariano said at a commission workshop last week. “I didn’t want to put in a tax that was going to keep reoccurring if we didn’t need it.”

A 2-cent gas tax raise would alone generate about $3.2 million. However, the county is looking to increase revenue by at least $5 million to stay at the same level of road work as last year, or even as much as $8 million to fully get the county back on track.

The only other way the commission could raise that kind of money is by levying additional property tax to homeowners in the county. Supporters of the gas tax say it’s more fair because the people using the roads are the ones paying for it, whether they live in the county or not. Opponents fear the additional tax would be passed to consumers, and that drivers will wait to get to a neighboring county with cheaper gas before stopping at the pump.

Mariano, however, isn’t convinced that a property tax increase would be needed to raise an additional $5 million or even $8 million. Instead, he wants to use reserve funds — the county’s financial fallback in case it runs out of money — to wipe out the shortfall instead.

Commissioner Kathryn Starkey didn’t like that idea at all. “I don’t see how you do operation and maintenance out of your piggy bank,” she said.

But Mariano believes the reserve fund is not following its original purpose, which he says is to keep tax rates low during tough economic times by using saved cash sitting in the bank.

Starkey wanted nothing of it, citing her past experience on the Pasco County school board, and how she saw business being done with neighboring districts.

“We did not go into that,” Starkey said of the reserved funds. “I saw other school boards get into that, and they expected the state to bail them out when they got in trouble. Those school board members were not making a hard vote to have a balanced budget by going into their reserves, and they got into trouble. To me, that is very bad fiscal policy.”

Commissioner Ted Schrader was ready to do more than that, willing to commit to a 3-cent gas tax, and to limit raising property taxes to as small a number as possible.

“You raise the millage rate, you may not hear it, but I hear it,” Schrader told Mariano. “It’s even higher for non-homestead property, and higher for business and retailers.”

The commission would raise more than enough money to meet its needs by increasing the gas tax to as much as 5 cents. However, that move would not have the support of either Mariano, who says he’s limited to 2 cents, and Wilson, who is against a gas tax increase at all.

A 2-cent increase would cost motorists an additional $15 annually, or 29 cents a week assuming they filled the tank weekly and gas stations pass those increases to motorists. To hit the $8 million mark, commissioners would have to raise property taxes at least 0.25 mills, which would have an additional financial impact of $12.66 on a home valued at $100,000 that also carries $50,000 in exemptions.

Commissioners will have to come to some kind of a consensus before the end of the month. County Administrator Michele Baker said she starts putting together next year’s budget just after the July 4 holiday.

Commissioner Pat Mulieri, who supports raising the gas tax, said it’s important to get this issue decided before work begins on the budget.

“You’re never going to make everyone happy in this world,” she said. “You just have to do what you believe is the right thing to do.”

Published June 11, 2014

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