Sunday, May 20, 2018
News Roundup

Commission backs more road maintenance, grapples with 5-cent gas tax hike

Pasco's beleaguered Road and Bridge division might have a tough time convincing elected officials it needs more revenue, although a recent survey of residents seems to show support for better roads.

By a 3-1 margin, residents said they want the county to spend more money to fix potholes, trim trees and mow grass in county rights of way, according to a citizen survey released a few weeks ago.

But while most agreed on the need for improved roads, the 243 Pasco residents who filled out the survey were split on how to fund the work, an issue county commissioners are grappling with now in budget negotiations.

More streets and rising costs, including for gasoline, have the division struggling to keep up. Maintaining a mile of roadway in Pasco cost $1,664 per lane in 2008. Now it's $2,516 per lane, says public works director Mike Garrett.

At the same time, officials have slashed the division's budget 40 percent from five years ago to $6.3 million and increased by 250 the amount of lane miles it's responsible for maintaining.

For residents, all this translates to longer response times to fix potholes, mow rights of way, haul away dead trees, trim low-hanging branches, re-stripe roads, replace signs and repair fences and guardrails.

"Just three years ago, in 2010, it took nine days to respond to low-hanging tree branches. Now it takes 79 days," Garrett said.

So now commissioners are debating whether to boost the gas tax by 5 cents per gallon to generate $7.5 million for that maintenance work. They could also trim the increase or pass no hike at all — ceding to frustrated taxpayers.

Commissioners are set to make a decision Sept. 10 after a public hearing.

Increasing the gas tax by 5 cents would raise the total imposed by Pasco to 12 cents a gallon. That would put it on par with Polk County, but higher than Pinellas and Hillsborough, which use a combination of gas and property taxes to fund their maintenance budgets. Pasco uses gas taxes only.

Right now, the commission is divided on what to do. The tax hasn't changed in years. Commissioners were reluctant to even raise the issue during the economic downturn. At least four votes are needed to pass the hike.

Now with taxpayers venting their anger in emails and at public meetings, county staff might have to settle for less than the 5 cents sought — or no increase at all.

"I don't know if it has four votes," commission Chairman Ted Schrader said flatly.

Schrader predicted that if commissioners favor any increase it might be a lesser one, possibly 2 or 3 cents.

"I think if the county could get 3 cents they would be happy with it," he said.

That would mean another $4.5 million a year for roads.

Commissioners favor gas taxes over property taxes because motorists from outside the area also contribute to the fund and the money goes exclusively to road work.

Citizen surveys can help gauge public opinion, commissioners said, but they usually don't form the sole basis on which to make a decision.

"They don't get all the background information we get," Schrader said.

Commissioner Pat Mulieri is among those who says she might back an increase but adds she doesn't believe her fellow commissioners will support the full 5 cents.

"I think maybe 3 (cents) might work," Mulieri said. "This will make some people happy and some people not. Some people say, 'I don't care about roads.' Other people say they want medians to look nice to attract business and industry. It's a rough year. There's no two ways around it."

Commissioner Jack Mariano opposes the increase. He says he wants better roads, but not at the cost of higher gas taxes.

Mariano said the county is owed $7 million from homeowner groups for paving their neighborhoods. The amounts were borrowed from the county and many became delinquent during the recession. The county is trying to recover the money, but any recouped funds would go back into the paving fund.

"Right now I don't want to talk about putting in the gas tax at all until we tackle the $7 million in paving assessment delinquencies," Mariano said.

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