DADE CITY — Faced with growing costs amid an expected voter-endorsed tax cut, Pasco County is considering changing the way it pays for parks, libraries and public safety.
It could result in 2018 voter referendums to create three new countywide tax districts, in addition to the existing tax unit that finances the Pasco fire department.
If voters agree, the new districts, with separate tax rates, would absorb costs now paid out of the county’s general fund, freeing up money for future law enforcement and other government operational expenses. The referendums are not required by law, but a commission majority said they wanted voters to have their say.
Current and past commissions have debated the wisdom of a special taxing district for parks, but a major impetus this time is the presumed outcome of a 2018 statewide ballot question to increase the homestead exemption an additional $25,000 for homeowners. If approved, county officials expect it will remove $8 million in property tax revenue from the general fund and $2 million from the county’s fire district under the current tax rates.
"We’ve got to find alternative funding sources,’’ said Bob Goehrig, the county’s budget director.
But consensus was hard to come by during a commission workshop last week.
Parks and recreation
A separate tax for parks could help build new parks, ease a $14 million backlog of deferred maintenance projects and allow the county to better maintain and replace its existing inventory of 35 parks holding 117 sports fields, 33 playgrounds, seven recreation or community centers, two swimming pools and 106 miles of trails. Construction of much of the county’s parks and library systems was financed by a voter-approved $23 million bond issue in 1986.
"It’s important because the county made a significant investment a long time ago, and it’s time to reinvest,’’ said Keith Wiley, the acting director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department.
Commissioner Kathryn Starkey was his strongest ally.
"We can’t have slides falling apart — things falling apart,’’ Starkey said. "Key Vista? There’s not one premiere thing in that park except the view. We have let our citizens down by letting these parks fall apart.’’
Commissioner Ron Oakley also advocated for increased investment in parks, particularly to reduce the $14 million worth of delayed maintenance. Public support is there, he said.
"They want (parks), and they want us to take care of them,’’ Oakley said.
Commission Chairman Mike Moore and Commissioner Mike Wells Jr. called the discussion premature since the county has hired a consultant to do polling and community outreach to determine the public’s appetite for increased park spending.
Commissioner Jack Mariano said the county should consider higher impact fees on new home construction, an idea a board majority panned previously. He also floated the idea of using Penny for Pasco sales tax money for parks.
County staffers said a tax rate of .9124 mills, or less than 92 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, would bring in more than $20 million a year and cost the typical Pasco household $47 annually. The current county parks budget is about $9 million, plus an additional $1.5 million for the deferred maintenance work.
The county’s library system is significantly smaller and understaffed when measured by Florida Library Association standards, and Pasco’s per-capita spending on library operations is half the state average. However, Pasco’s libraries are well stocked, carrying nearly 1 million items available to patrons, about 7 percent above the state recommendation.
The libraries now total 108,000 square feet, and a county master plan recommended adding more than 45,000 square feet of library space by 2019. A new library is planned within the Starkey Ranch development in a joint agreement with the school district and Wheelock Communities. But its annual operating expenses, borne by the county, are projected to be $700,000.
Restoring previous cuts to libraries and opening all branches on Mondays, adding in the Starkey Ranch costs and renovating existing buildings could carry an annual expense of $11 million, financed by a tax rate of .5072 mills, or just less than 51 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, according to the county staff. Building new library branches and adding staff to operate them would push the tax rate higher – .6515 mills to add two libraries or .8982 for four new branches.
A third taxing district could finance the county’s ambulance services and/or the emergency management operations and the 911 communications center, which comprise the Emergency Services Department.
The proposal calls for adding nine ambulances and nine-member crews for each vehicle because of the volume of calls handled by the existing fleet of 24 response teams. Expected first-year costs are $8.4 million.
Meanwhile, the state-controlled communications service tax, used to finance 911 operations, has dropped from $6.5 million to $4.7 million annually over the past eight years.
The emergency management component calls for building a catastrophic reserve account, buying generators, retrofitting and hardening shelters and adding a planner. It would be accompanied by eliminating the county’s hurricane impact fee of $248 for new homes built in evacuation zones.
Putting emergency services and the ambulance rescue operations into a single tax district would cost more than $20.7 million and carry a projected tax rate of .9486 mills.
Both Goehrig and Kevin Guthrie, assistant county administrator for public safety, told commissioners that the taxing districts would help the county with future law enforcement costs. Goehrig suggested the Pasco Sheriff’s Office would again seek an $8 million increase in its budget request for the next fiscal year while Guthrie predicted the sheriff would ask for 50 to 75 additional officers sometime in the next two budget cycles to staff a new patrol district.
The current fiscal year began Oct. 1, and, in an email, Sheriff Chris Nocco told the Tampa Bay Times it was too early to determine his agency’s next budget request.
"It is puzzling that Kevin Guthrie, who is not a member of the Sheriff’s Office, was speaking on behalf of the Sheriff’s Office in budget matters. We have a realistic view that a future expansion, to include a new district, is not occurring in the near future," Nocco said.
Commissioners already have the authority to create the special taxing districts, known as a municipal service taxing unit, or MSTU, but a commission majority said it did not want to proceed without voter approval.
At some point, commissioners also must determine whether the taxing districts will include the six cities in Pasco. The fire district excludes the cities of Zephyrhills, New Port Richey and Port Richey, which have their own fire departments.