DADE CITY — It's no longer going to cost $2 to visit Pasco County's beaches.
On Tuesday, commissioners agreed to spend a portion of a $3 million budget windfall by ending the parking fee at nine coastal and wilderness parks. Commissioners left in place the $5 charge to park boat trailers at the county's boat ramps.
The elimination of the parking fees does not apply to the privately operated SunWest Park near Aripeka.
The parking fees, adopted in 2010 amid the economic downturn that triggered budget cuts, generate about $320,000 annually for the county parks department. Parking at the boat ramps nets about $75,000.
The idea of removing the parking fee came from Commissioner Jack Mariano, who has opposed the charge since its inception. His proposal drew support from Commissioner Mike Wells Jr., who criticized the inequity of charging for parking just at beaches and the Jay B. Starkey, Crews Lake and Withlacoochee River wilderness parks, but not at other locations.
"There's folks who can't afford to go the parks," Wells said.
Commissioner Kathryn Starkey initially objected unless the county made up the shortfall.
"I'm not in favor of getting rid of money for parks unless we get them more money," said Starkey, who suggested tying the fee rollback to a planned 2018 push for new taxing districts for parks and recreation.
Commissioners, however, dipped into the new money that will come from a burgeoning property tax rolls.
New construction in central Pasco and Wesley Chapel pushed Pasco County's tax rolls to more than $24.6 billion for 2017, a 7.65 percent increase over a year ago, Property Appraiser Gary Joiner said last week.
The figure, higher than the preliminary estimate in May of $24.24 billion, means an additional $3 million for the county government's general fund without having to raise the property tax rate.
Most of the money is earmarked for reserves. In June, commissioners agreed to tap into a reserve account to finance millions of dollars in new spending requests for the next fiscal year, with plans to replenish the account once the property appraiser's final figures were released.
On Tuesday, commissioners also said they would consider Commissioner Ronald Oakley's pitch to give $25,000 each to the Pioneer Florida Museum and the West Pasco Historical Society, both of which operate museums to preserve local history.
Commissioners set the property tax rate for the coming year at 7.6076 mills for the general fund and 1.8036 mills for the Fire Department. A mill is equal to $1 of tax for every $1,000 of taxable property value. Typical owners of homesteaded properties should see their county tax bills go up a little less than $10 in combined general fund and fire district taxes because of the 2.1 percent increase in property values. The budget, which still is subject to two public hearings in September, is effective Oct. 1.
Among the highlights:
• A new platform ladder truck, a new fire rescue boat and 25 new employees — including 15 officers, drivers and firefighters to staff the new truck — for the Fire Department.
• 4 percent pay raises for county employees.
• $8.2 million for the Pasco Sheriff's Office to finance the final year of a three-year salary increase, and for new positions and operating expenses in the department.
• Expanded ambulance service in Trilby/Lacoochee and west Pasco.
• Additional library hours. Branches at Regency Park and Land O'Lakes will reopen on Mondays in the new budget year.