It pretty much started when John Gallagher was caught in heavy traffic on Interstate 75.
The morning rush is exactly that, the morning rush. But Gallagher, then the Pasco County administrator, realized that these were primarily people who lived in his county, but were heading south to work jobs in Hillsborough and even Pinellas counties.
From that time forward, Pasco County made it a priority to develop policy that not only encouraged people to find homes in the county, but to work here as well. That meant working to attract high-wage jobs to the area with efforts like tax incentives, and removing some of the red tape involved in locating a business in the county.
Ken Littlefield, a former state representative who is running for Pasco County Commission, may bring a completely different perspective to the dais if he’s elected, however.
“A lot of people see 60,000 to 80,000 people leaving Pasco to go to work in Hillsborough or Pinellas counties as a negative. But I’m not sure about that,” Littlefield said. “It’s like they are working in the mine. They are bringing the gold back to Pasco, and they are spending that money here. When that money is spent here, there is economic growth that is taking place.”
Littlefield shared those views during a candidate forum last week at Keystone Community Church in Land O’ Lakes, hosted by the Central Pasco and Trinity-Odessa chambers of commerce. Other candidates seeking the same seat on the commission quickly rebuked his remarks.
“When I think about a premier county, I think about jobs in that county,” said Mike Moore, who is facing Littlefield for the Republican nomination.
Money, he said, doesn’t necessarily come back home. Especially since people spend a lot of time at work, and spending money around their jobs.
“There was a time that I worked outside the area quite often, and I would fill my gas tank on the way home in another county,” Moore said. “I would shop in the afternoon — guess where, in another county. Guess where I ate breakfast? Another county.”
Pasco residents spend an average of 30 minutes on the road commuting to work, compared to 26 minutes for residents living in Hillsborough, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Two decades ago, that commute time was 24 minutes, and despite advancements like the widening of I-75, U.S. 41 and the construction of the Suncoast Parkway, the time it takes to get to work is just going up for Pasco residents.
It’s something county leaders still want to curb, especially since Pasco ranks as one of the worst commute times in the state, spending the equivalent of three full work weeks, and a bit of overtime, behind the wheel each year.
“That’s valuable time, and time is money,” said James Edwards, the transportation manager with Pasco’s Metropolitan Planning Organization.
But it’s not just sales tax the county collects from having more business here, but other ways of producing more money inside the county as well.
“Basically, the big (economic) payoff is at the other end of their trip, which is where they are employed,” Edwards said. “The intent is to build that employment base within your own county, so that you capture the best of all worlds.”
How can the county keep more workers here? Find companies willing to pay higher wages, said another county commission candidate, Bob Robertson. He cited a report from the National Bureau of Labor Statistics that showed the average weekly wage in Pasco was $624, while it was well above $800 in Hillsborough and Pinellas.
“I live in Pasco and work in Pasco,” the Zephyrhills financial analyst said. “When you have a chance to make 30 to 35 percent more, it’s no wonder more people drive south.”
Making it worse, Robertson said, is the fact any educated work force Pasco develops ends up moving away.
“We are hearing about kids who are coming out of school, and they are not going to Hillsborough or Pinellas. They are going to Atlanta, or they are going somewhere else altogether,” he said. “That is not a good thing for Pasco County.”
Sandy Graves, who chairs the government affairs committee at the Central Pasco Chamber, said a lot of what’s needed is patience.
“I am happy that people have jobs and choose to live here in Pasco, because that is the reality of the situation at present,” she said in an email. “There is no doubt that Hillsborough and Pinellas have the commercial economic base that supplies those jobs for many that live here, but our county needs to prepare for the natural growth of businesses that will move northward in the future.”
However, Erika Remsberg — the lone Democrat seeking to replace Pat Mulieri on the county commission — believes there is something the county can do right now: invest in small businesses.
“We should be putting 75 percent of our economic development money into small business,” Remsberg said. “It’s a lot less expensive, and can have more of an impact. Just think, if they all added just one job, we would have 3,000 more jobs in Pasco County.”
Any change to scale back the need to commute will take a while, the MPO’s Edwards said.
“It’s going to take a long time to change it, probably 15 to 20 years to change that dynamic,” Edwards said. “But at the end of the day, it’s really a revenue-based decision, and what’s good for the employment sector is good for the county.”
Published August 6, 2014
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