Last-minute agreement makes long-awaited gas tax reality

If Congress is any indication, it’s rare to see Democrats and Republicans agreeing on very much, if anything, these days.

But when it comes to increasing the Pasco County tax on gas sales, local leaders from both parties agreed: They didn’t want it.

The talk of a gas tax did not stop Land O’ Lakes resident Ron Cain from filling up his SUV at the 7-Eleven gas pumps on State Road 54 and U.S. 41. Motorists are slated for a smooth ride as the tax money generated will be used to build new Pasco County roads. (Fred Bellett/Photo)

The talk of a gas tax did not stop Land O’ Lakes resident Ron Cain from filling up his SUV at the 7-Eleven gas pumps on State Road 54 and U.S. 41. Motorists are slated for a smooth ride as the tax money generated will be used to build new Pasco County roads.
(Fred Bellett/Photo)

Yet, it would be an agreement of a different sort that won the day last week, when Pasco County commissioners finally found that fourth vote to approve a 5-cent increase in gas taxes, which is expected to raise an additional $8 million annually to help fund road construction. And it came in the form of outgoing commissioner Henry Wilson Jr.

“We’re all in a lose-lose situation, primarily me,” Wilson shared with fellow commissioners during a meeting Sept. 9. “If I say yes to the gas tax after I said no every single time before, I will be labeled as a flip-flopper. If I say no to it today, I’m ostracized by the people who are trying to build here.”

Wilson had joined with Commissioner Jack Mariano last year to block an increase in the gas tax, which requires four of five commissioners to approve. Both Democrats and Republicans lauded the two at least week’s meeting for holding their ground against the increase.

“The Pasco Democratic party opposes the passage of raising the gas tax at this time,” said Lynn Linderman, chair of the Pasco Democratic Party. “Wages in Pasco are declining, workers are having less money, not more. You are asking the people who live here and have no mass transit in the Tampa Bay area to pay more taxes to go to work.”

Wanda Stevens, who represented the Conservative Party of East Pasco at the meeting, didn’t let that go unnoticed.

“I am agreeing with our Democratic folks back here, so please don’t let this get in the news,” she joked.

Commissioner Kathryn Starkey, however, said that while the commission is completely filled with Republicans, not addressing the road infrastructure needs of the county was actually against her opinion of conservative principles.

“It is difficult for us, because none of us want to be known as a Republican who raised the gas tax,” Starkey said. “I believe it’s much more conservative to have the funds to repair the road, then to not have the guts to raise this money, and then we have to replace the road. Because that cost is exponentially more than repairing the road.”

Starkey supported the full 5-cent additional tax, and was backed by many in the business community who stepped up to speak last week. That included representatives from various companies, as well as the Tampa Bay Builders Association, the real estate trade group NAIOP, John Hagen from the Pasco County Economic Development Council, and local housing developers like Stew Gibbons from the Connerton community in Land O’ Lakes.

“You’ll see that Pasco is really out of sync with being competitive with the other counties in the region,” Gibbons said. “This creates a change in momentum for quality builders from being in Pasco County, as opposed to being in Manatee County. And I know some good quality builders that are focusing more on Manatee County than Pasco County.”

Commissioners for months have talked about the need to add $8 million to the budget, but the debate was on how to collect it. The two schools of thought were either through expansion of the local option gas tax, or raising property taxes — or a combination of the two.

Wilson, however, had pushed for using the state-collected real-estate transfer fee, which could provide Pasco with $18 million every year it would have to split with the school district. The problem, however, was that state lawmakers haven’t earmarked that money for Pasco, and it would take their vote — plus the governor’s signature — to make that happen.

“Nobody picked up the bill because it did not have three commissioners saying to move forward on it,” Wilson said.

Commissioner Ted Schrader had earlier appealed to Wilson to change his mind on the vote, and to capitalize on what was a unique opportunity for a departing commissioner. Wilson had been defeated in an open primary election last month, and will be replaced by political newcomer Mike Wells Jr. in November.

Not giving up on his plan to use state funds instead of county dollars to pay for new roads, Wilson offered a compromise — put in language to switch the county to real estate transfer fees if they ever become available, and he’d support a gas tax in the meantime.

David Goldstein, the chief assistant county attorney, told commissioners he could add language to the gas tax ordinance that would allow such a tax to end if real estate transfer funds were to become available, and were approved by both state lawmakers and county commissioners.

Wilson then joined commissioners Starkey, Schrader and Pat Mulieri to pass the 5-cent gas tax, with Mariano remaining opposed.

“When a gas supplier has a gas tax, they pass that cost onto the people buying the gas,” said Mariano, disputing some claims from county officials that some or all of the tax may be absorbed by gas stations, and not passed on to customers. “It’s basic economics, that cost is passed on.”

If the new gas tax is passed on to drivers, their costs could increase by $37.50 per year, county officials said. Small business owners would likely feel a $250 impact each year.

Published September 17, 2014

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