LAND O'LAKES — Pasco County has laid off 180 people and eliminated another 50 open jobs over the last four years. Next year's county budget faces a projected $5.3 million shortfall because of falling property values. Higher fuel and pension costs could add millions more to the gap.
So what would you do?
That was one of several questions debated by about 25 citizens who attended a Thursday evening community meeting at the Land O'Lakes Community Center for a primer on the county's budget outlook.
One possible solution is increasing the property tax rate by 33 cents for every $1,000 in property value. That works out to an extra $23 in taxes for a $120,000 home with standard exemptions, the average home value in Pasco. With a corresponding increase for fire and rescue services, the figure would be $28.
Another option is to reduce services. Cut library hours or even close a branch. Lay off park maintenance staffers. Drain county swimming pools. But those two areas — parks and libraries — were top priorities on a survey of 1,000 Pasco citizens conducted by a national firm.
"The two things people don't want to cut are luxuries, parks and libraries," said J.D. Wright, who was wary of a tax increase on his Oakstead home.
Ray Williams of Land O'Lakes replied: "Some of the things we look at as luxuries are really needed items to attract companies and employers to Pasco."
County Administrator John Gallagher echoed that point, saying prospective businesses look at an area's quality of life, including parks, schools and the crime rate.
"They're moving families into the community, they're not just moving bricks and mortar," he said. "If you cut things people think are luxuries, what are you going to have left?"
But the toll of a prolonged recession and a stubbornly high unemployment rate was evident among the crowd.
"People are totally stressed out between losing jobs, everything going up, gas going out of control," said Sharon Grossenbacher of Wesley Chapel told county officials. "No one is mad at you personally. We've just had it."
Gallagher pointed to an age-old problem facing governments of every level: "Nobody wants to cut anything, and they don't want to raise taxes."
Which brings us back to the original question. What do you do?
The county might end up doing both, according to Chief Assistant County Administrator Michele Baker.
A slightly higher property tax rate to offset falling values, and a cut in services to make up for higher costs.
"We're trying to be judicious in the balance between the two," she said.
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.