Pasco County commissioners want to know if residents enjoy their parks and libraries enough to pay higher taxes for “quality of life” services.
Three community forums, in Hudson, Dade City and Land O’ Lakes, were held to get public input on the matter. Residents also have an opportunity to complete a 45-question survey on how to pay for parks and libraries.
A series of survey questions, for instance, ask if residents would be willing to pay monthly increases in property taxes of $6, $8 or $10 to pay for those amenities.
About a dozen residents attended the forum at the Land O’ Lakes Recreation Center on Nov. 29.
There were mixed reactions.
Joel Jackson moved from Hillsborough County to Pasco about six years ago. “I was a little bit shocked at how little in services there were,” he said. “By all means, if we need to spend more money, absolutely.”
But, a couple from Gulf Harbors, Mitch and Diane Kobernick, weren’t convinced. “It seems we’re being nickeled and dimed to death on our taxes,” said Diane Kobernick.
At a workshop in October, Pasco County commissioners discussed one option to direct more tax dollars to parks and libraries. They could create a special tax district, known as a municipal services taxing unit.
Based on a set millage rate, the county would collect property taxes to fund those departments. Estimates range from a low of about $71 a year to a high of about $97 a year per household.
Or calculated in another way, the cost to a family living in a house valued at $100,000 would range from about $5.92 a month to about $8.12 a month.
No decision on the taxing district was made.
Most county commissioners leaned toward putting the matter on a referendum in 2018. The results wouldn’t be binding, but would give commissioners guidance in reaching a decision.
They have authority to create a taxing district now, if they choose. Instead, they asked county staff members to report back after reaching out to the public for comments.
At each forum, residents get information on the financial plight of parks and libraries, and scenarios on how to increase funding to each department.
Those scenarios include the taxing district but also other options, including increases in funding from general revenue sources.
“The goal is to get as much input as possible,” said Keith Wiley, acting director of the parks, recreation and natural resources department.
In past years, parks and libraries had significant budget cuts as a result of the 2008 economic downturn. Neither has fully recovered, though some additional funding has been approved.
Parks, for instance, received about $1.5 million to aid in deferred maintenance costs for 2018.
Pasco County commissioners “have been very supportive with a limited pot of money,” said Cathy Pearson, assistant county administrator for public services.
The financial picture for parks and libraries isn’t rosy.
The total in deferred maintenance is about $14 million. The parks’ annual budget is about $9 million.
“At the current rate of funding, we’re never going to catch up,” Wiley said.
The library spends about $13 per person annually for its services while the state average per person is about $26.
Based on state library standards, Pasco needs about 170,000 square feet of additional library space, and another 40 employees. The next library slated for construction, at Starkey Ranch, would be in 2021.
There are more budget stresses on the horizon.
The county’s overall budget could take a significant dip, if voters approve a $25,000 increase in homestead exemption in a November 2018 referendum. County officials estimate losing about $8 million in property tax revenues.
Still, some residents, including the Kobernicks, aren’t prepared to take on a tax increase. The Gulf Harbor couple, and others in their community, already face an assessment based on the county’s $1.2 million purchase of the former Gulf Harbor golf course. The property went into the county’s Environmental Land Acquisitions and Management Program.
The cost would be split between the county and about 1,700 Gulf Harbor residents. However, Diane Kobernick and Susan Levine have filed a lawsuit challenging the sale.
Others, though, are open to a property tax that would give parks and libraries a dedicated funding source.
Every year, those departments compete with other departments, including public safety, for general revenue funds, said Joan Clarke, president of the Land O’ Lakes Friends of the Library.
And, they struggle each year to provide residents with services they need, she said.
Even with all the growth in Pasco, she said, “They still have no library in Wesley Chapel.”
Published December 13, 2017