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Bowen: A history lesson that’s not too taxing

By C.T. Bowen
Pasco County built the Hercules Aquatic Center in Zephyrhills after voters agreed to tax themselves in 1986 for new parks and libraries. The county shut down the pool in 2011 amid prolonged budget constraints. Commissioners now are considering new tax districts for parks, libraries and public safety. Times staff (2010)

Pasco County’s parks need a new historical marker.

It could serve as an appropriate reminder of the not-so-distant past as the county embarks on a public information campaign for a presumed 2018 voter referendum on paying for parks and recreation.

The marker’s message could be clear and concise: Don’t do this again.

There will be people with long memories who will be asked to support the idea of a new tax district for parks and recreation spending, and perhaps separate taxes for libraries and public safety, too. Some of those people will reside in Pasco’s six cities, and some of them, undoubtedly, will not look favorably on the county’s request.

That is, unless the county shares the resources as it did with Penny for Pasco sales tax.

"Certainly, if they were going to do a countywide (tax district) that would include taxing residents of municipalities, then I think the citizens could reasonably expect some of those tax revenues flowing back to the municipalities,’’ said New Port Richey Mayor Rob Marlowe.

Well, not always, if the past is any indication.

This history lesson starts shortly after the November 1986 ballot referendum in which a plurality of Pasco voters agreed to a new 10-year property tax to finance $23 million worth of new parks and libraries.

The county’s largest city, New Port Richey, asked for a slice of the pie. It wanted $130,000 rebated back to the city as it proceeded to build its own $2 million city hall/library complex. Such a rebate, city officials said, would end the double taxation on city property owners.

County commissioners tentatively agreed in a March 1987 workshop with the city, but balked 11 months later during a formal commission meeting when City Council members and municipal library supporters repeated the request. The county’s advice then was for the city to turn its library over to the county if it wanted a share of the new tax revenue. The city put the question to the electorate in the April election, and New Port Richey voters overwhelmingly said they wanted to keep their library under city control.

It’s been that way ever since. Today, the city operates its library with a $1 million annual budget, plus it has its own network of parks and a recreation/aquatic center with a combined $1.5 million budget. It also has its own ambitions. The city’s parks master plan outlines a $47 million investment that would include four new 5-acre community parks, $20 million in upgrades to existing facilities and $19 million worth of bicycle and pedestrian paths.

So, would the city buy into a countywide tax referendum without a revenue sharing component?

"I think there will be healthy discussion about that,’’ said Marlowe. "In fairness, some city residents go to other county parks like Green Key and Starkey Wilderness Park, but you can make an argument that we’re getting a huge amount of people who don’t live in the city using Sims Park.’’

The second lesson takes place more recently in Zephyrhills. There, Pasco County closed the Hercules Aquatic Center in 2011 amid the budget constraints of the Great Recession. The county built the pool with the proceeds of the 1986 voter-approved bond referendum.

How do you think those people will feel about paying a new tax for countywide parks when they already paid for a county swimming poll that commissioners drained when the money got tight?

Like New Port Richey, Zephyrhills also is investing in its own parks system. It rebuilt the skate park, is expanding Zephyr Park, hopes to open a passive recreation area on the remainder of the Hercules site and is working with private enterprises to open a competitive tennis center. Zephyrhills also opened its rebuilt library less than three years ago.

"We’re putting a lot of money into our own enterprises,’’ said City Council President Alan Knight.

Translation?

Unless the county forks over some of the tax revenue — as it did under Penny for Pasco — a new countywide tax district in Zephyrhills might not be too popular.

The third lesson comes from the 2010 public debate over creating a municipal service taxing unit for the Pasco Sheriff’s Office. The commission blessed the idea in May of that year, then retreated weeks later after befuddled commissioners realized they hadn’t paid close attention to the math. Only Commissioner Jack Mariano remains from that board.

Creating a separate tax for law enforcement, but excluding the six cities, meant a tax increase for most of the county’s property owners. That’s what happens when you take 100 percent of the expenses and spread it out over just 90 percent of the property owners living in the unincorporated portions of the county.

Therein lies the rub. Failing to share revenue with the cities will be construed by the municipalities, and likely a majority of the 25,600 voters who reside in them, as double taxation. Excluding the cities from the taxing districts will be considered by others as a shift of the tax burden.

The potential voter referendums still are a year away. The history review shouldn’t wait that long.