For the past two years, the Pasco County Commission has faced pressure from first responders to improve funding for the county’s fire rescue services.
Last week, the heat was coming from a different direction.
During discussion of a proposed tax hike to support fire services, property owners urged the county board to find ways to trim costs, or tap into other sources of revenue, rather than asking taxpayers to pay more.
Some critics told the county board that it’s getting too expensive to live in Pasco and that they may be forced to move.
The county has proposed increasing the millage for the county’s Fire Municipal Services Taxing Unit (MSTU) from its current rate of 1.8036 to 2.3 mills. One mill is equal to $1 for every $1,000 worth of taxable value.
The increase would cost $49.64 a year for the owner of a home with a taxable value of $100,000.
The increase is intended primarily for salary increases, opening two fire stations, software upgrades, mental health, and more firefighters and equipment.
County Commissioner Seth Weightman told his colleagues he can support some of the proposed increase, but not all of it.
The commissioner expressed irritation at changing proposals regarding the Fire MSTU through the course of budget talks.
During initial discussions, no increase was proposed for the Fire MSTU, then it went to a five-year plan, and now, a 10-year plan, Weightman said.
“You keep moving the goal line every time we have these budget talks,” Weightman told County Administrator Mike Carballa.
“These are big jumps.”
Weightman said people are feeling pressured by higher property and vehicle insurance premiums and other inflationary impacts.
Taxpayers are objecting, he added.
“In my office, every day the calls are going in. People are nervous about what these increases are going to look like,” he said.
Property owners also gave the county board an earful during the first public hearing on the budget, held Sept. 5.
One East Pasco man told the county board: “I’m here to protest the budget increase. I represent myself, my neighbors and my fellow citizens in Crystal Springs, and to let you know that we know exactly what you are doing. You’re not fooling anyone.
“It’s bad enough I have to pay $3,000 a year, which isn’t bad compared to him, for a mobile home that I own outright on my own land, that I own outright, without you coming to me and saying, ‘That’s not enough. We need 25% more.”
He wasn’t buying the county’s reasoning that it needs more money because of the effects inflation is having on the government’s ability to pay for needed infrastructure and services.
“You’re going to lecture us about inflation. You know what we’re expected to do when inflation hits us? Tighten our belts, cut costs and do more with less. That’s what we’re expected to do.
“Fifteen years of exponential growth going into the coffers of this county and you’re coming to us and you’re telling us, ‘It’s not enough. We need 25% more.’ It’s outrageous.
“You know what roads and schools and firehouses are? Impacts from overbuilt sprawl, of which you are the overseers of.”
The man suggested: “Double the impact fees, triple ‘em. That’ll stop the sprawl.
“You know what I expect you to do? Do more with less, tighten your belt and cut costs.”
He wasn’t the only speaker who told the board to look for solutions other than raising taxes.
One resident noted that owners of rental property pay higher taxes because their properties don’t qualify for homestead exemptions.
As they pay higher taxes, he said, they will have to pass along the tax hikes to their renters.
He said he doesn’t want to do that, but doesn’t have the option not to.
Another resident told board members that if the higher tax is adopted, he will do what he can to help Weightman retain his seat and whatever he can to make sure the other board members don’t.
One firefighter appeared before the board to speak on behalf of the higher tax rate: “I recognize that raising taxes is a big deal, and I recognize that people are having a tough time right now. But it occurs to me that had this millage rate been adjusted, even in the most modest amount five years ago, what a much better financial position we would be in now, and how much of that growth that’s come to this county, of people of wealth, of means from other areas that are buying these expensive homes, the portion they could have been paying into our tax rolls to build our fire department to what it should be.”
The speaker also noted that a comparison by Florida TaxWatch showed that Pasco County ranked 57th out of the state’s 67 counties, in terms of expenditures for public safety.
“That’s unbelievably low. It’s a testament to the work that the men and women of your fire department have been putting in for it to function as well as it has.”
Because of Pasco’s growth, the amount of spending per capita for fire department spending has been decreasing, the firefighter noted.
“It’s time to adjust the millage for the fire department to bring us to the area that we need to be,” the speaker said.
While opposition was apparent, commissioners Kathryn Starkey and Ron Oakley spoke in favor of the proposed increase.
“We’ve always been known as a very conservative, and lower-cost alternative to the counties around us,” Starkey said. “I think when you’re a fast-growing county like we are, it puts pressures on everything.
“To have it take 18 minutes to have someone respond to a call, it’s not OK. That’s a life-and-death situation. The steps that we’re taking today are not getting us all of the way where we need to be, but again, we’re taking a conservative step forward.
“These are not frivolous things that we’re having to vote on,” Starkey said.
Oakley said voters previously approved a bond issue for additional fire personnel and more fire stations.
“If you gave this issue to the citizens, I would almost guarantee that they would pass it,” Oakley said.
Like Starkey, Oakley said the county must improve on its response times.
Commission Chairman Jack Mariano also noted the taxpayer approval of the general obligation bonds to support fire services.
The county is attempting to provide the kind of services people want, Mariano said.
“The people have told us they want to live in a quality place,” Mariano said.
Carballa said he was persuaded to bring the proposed Fire MSTU to the board in May because the Fire MSTU was insolvent.
“In the red?” Starkey asked.
“In the red, correct,” Carballa replied.
The county administrator continued: “The county had gone eight years without an increase in that fund. The exponential rate of growth and the demand of services, the need to outfit new fire stations with firefighters and equipment. It’s simply at a point where it’s not sustainable,” he said.
The county also has a challenge retaining firefighters because other counties offer better pay, Carballa said.
“We lose firefighters to Hillsborough, City of Tampa. It’s highly, highly competitive,” the county administrator said.
At the same time, Pasco has increasing needs for service.
“We are the third busiest ambulatory agency in the state of Florida. And, our response times are suffering and we are playing a lot of catch-up, due to the growth,” Carballa said.
Carballa told the board that a shorter planning horizon would likely result in a lower millage rate request for the Fire MSTU.
Mariano encouraged him to look at a five-year plan, instead of one covering 10 years.
“We can present the board with options,” Carballa said.
The board’s final budget hearing is set for Sept. 19, at 5:15 p.m. in the boardroom at the Pasco County Government Center, 8731 Citizens Drive, in New Port Richey.
Published September 13, 2023