County exploring adding a new tax

Pasco County commissioners often talk about making Pasco a premier county.

But, even with a rebounding economy, they are facing a financial hurdle in funding the necessities for parks, libraries and emergency management.

Looming ahead is a third $25,000 homestead exemption, which is expected to pass in a 2018 voter referendum.

If it does pass, Pasco County could lose $8 million in general fund revenues, and $2 million in fire fund revenues.

One solution commissioners are exploring is municipal taxing units that would collect revenues based on property tax valuations.

Commissioners discussed the idea at an Oct. 17 workshop in Dade City.

No decision was reached, but county staff members will provide more details in the future.

And, it’s possible that voters could weigh in, if the matter goes to a referendum.

Pasco County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey wants to move forward, without a referendum. Other commissioners want a referendum before considering any increase of taxes.

Representatives of each of the three departments presented a list of backlogged equipment and repairs, or enhanced services that are needed, if Pasco is to become a premier county.

Parks has about $14 million in deferred maintenance at its 35 parks, recreation centers, trails and swimming pools. Its current annual budget is about $9 million.

A taxing unit would collect about $28 million annually.

However, not all of those funds would be spent at once. The annual parks’ budget would increase to between $10 million and $13 million.

And, funds would be spent on maintenance of existing facilities and long-term replacement, said Keith Wiley, the county’s natural resources manager.

“It’s not about having more facilities and prettier facilities,” he said.

Libraries and emergency management also face shrinking resources.

Based on state library standards, Pasco spends about $13 per person, or about half the state average of about $26 per person. The same standards show Pasco needs about 170,000 square feet of additional space. Yet, the next library, probably in Starkey Ranch, isn’t slated for construction until 2022.

Library staffing also is well below state average standards.

“We need to update our facilities to the 21st century,” said Sean McGarvey, a library administrator.

Emergency management and fire rescue face challenges in response times and providing protection for area residents.

Fire rescue needs eight additional fire stations to cover the entire county, and the growing population, said Michael Cassano, the county’s deputy fire chief of operations.

Additional personnel and equipment also are needed, he said.

Taxing units for emergency management and for fire rescue would collect about $10 million each.

The county’s 911 communications center won’t have sufficient room to operate in two to three years, a situation that Kevin Guthrie, assistant county administrator for public safety, called “catastrophic.”

The county also needs generators for the schools that provide emergency shelters during hurricanes.

Currently, the county can provide only three schools with generators, Guthrie said.

Starkey pushed to move forward and create taxing units with a future vote by county commissioners.

Prior public outreach has shown that residents are willing to support more funding, said Starkey.

She had raised the issue for parks during budget discussions for 2018, but the county could not have met a deadline to establish such a taxing district.

“We can’t have slides that are falling apart, swings falling apart,” she said. “We’ve just let our citizens down by letting all these parks fall apart. I think it’s 10 years past due to fund our parks and our libraries.”

The authority to create the taxing units belongs to the county commissioners. So, the referendum, unless voters were asked to approve a bond issue, would be a straw poll.

“I personally think we’re jumping the gun by even having any discussion,” said Pasco County Commission Chairman Mike Moore.

He cited an earlier directive from the county commission to first have outreach to the public on parks before considering a taxing unit.

County officials said the hurricane had delayed those efforts for outreach on the parks, but they would come back in December with results from meetings and polling efforts. Libraries and emergency management will be included.

Moore also did some quick figuring, determining that homeowners could face a 34 percent increase in taxes, if all of the taxing units were fully funded.

That would add about $140 to the average property tax bill of $407, based on the county’s average home value of $107,000.

“Never, ever, in my life will you see this person raise our citizens’ taxes by 34 percent,” Moore said. “That’s insane.”

Published October 25, 2017

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