Jack Mariano might be the chairman of the Pasco County Commission, but his popularity among fellow commissioners might be hitting an all-time low.
Mariano was hammered by commissioners Ted Schrader and Kathryn Starkey during Tuesday’s regular meeting in New Port Richey over his promotion of an expanded recreation park on the west side of the county. Starkey accused Mariano of going too far in how he mischaracterized the commission’s support of SunWest Park, and has wasted time by loading public comment periods at meetings with supporters of the project.
Later, however, Mariano was still wincing from the argument. When Schrader refused to adjust proposed millage rates for the coming year, Mariano then made it clear he would no longer be a potential fourth vote to pass an expanded gas pump tax that would help fund much-needed road projects in the county.
“This is taking away our flexibility,” Mariano told Schrader about not reorganizing the tax rates. “So don’t look for a fourth vote over here for the gas tax.”
The commission is proposing a starting tax rate at 9.3364 mills, although the hope among commissioners is to get the final taxation rate below 9 mills. One mill represents $1 of tax on every thousand dollars of taxable property value. So a $100,000 home with $50,000 in exemptions would pay $466.82 for the year.
Mariano had wanted to move some of the millage from a proposed transportation budget to help maintain roads to the operating budget. That would, in turn, make that money available to increase the hours libraries are open — hours that were cut when budgets had to be slashed at the height of the economic downturn.
The transportation millage of 0.3984 was put in place as an alternative to a 5-cent tax increase per gallon of gas, which would help raise $8 million to fund road improvements.
Schrader has supported doing only a 5-cent gas tax increase with no hike in property taxes. However, such a move would require the votes of four people, and Commissioner Henry Wilson already said he would not support it. That leaves Mariano as the swing vote, since Schrader, Starkey and retiring commissioner Pat Mulieri expressed support.
Shifting the millage numbers would give the commission a chance to start funding some slashed programs again, using set-aside money that would likely not be needed to fund roads if a gas tax was passed, Mariano said. But Schrader didn’t like the idea of moving numbers around.
“That is a slip-and-fall scam, and I’m absolutely not supporting that,” Schrader said. “That is not being fair or truthful to the residents. If you’re willing to raise property taxes for parks and libraries, just say it.”
Instead, Schrader wants the commission to work for a tax break, and look to start funding these struggling programs next year when higher property values mean potentially more tax revenue coming in.
“I think it’s a good idea to give the people a break,” Mulieri said. “I don’t think I have gotten a note about park fees or libraries.”
In the end, the commission voted to approve the preliminary tax rate at 9.3364 mills without adjusting any of the numbers.
The first hearing on the budget is scheduled for Sept. 9 at 6:30 p.m., at the Historic Pasco County Courthouse in Dade City. The commission will have to figure out how to fund an expanded transportation budget — either through a gas tax or property tax, or a combination of both — before the summer is out.