DADE CITY — Pasco drivers will catch a break at the pump after county commissioners Tuesday were unable to muster enough votes to approve an increase in gas taxes.
Commissioners debated raising the tax by 5 cents, then proposed a 3-cent or 2-cent hike when it became clear that not enough commissioners would back it.
Four votes were needed for passage, but two of the five commissioners opposed the increase: Henry Wilson and Jack Mariano.
Mariano had come out against the tax weeks ago. Wilson, who signaled some support initially, said he couldn't support it "in these economic times."
The increase, as proposed at 5 cents, would have raised the local option tax, or gas tax, to 12 cents from the 7 cents Pasco drivers now pay for a gallon of gas. That would have put Pasco at the top in the Tampa Bay area.
"My worry is if we do nothing, our roads will deteriorate and we will pay more," said Commissioner Kathryn Starkey, who proposed the increase.
The decision followed a lengthy public hearing in which opponents told commissioners how any increase will pose a hardship, especially to seniors, the poor and businesses.
Officials initially grappled with a 5-cent increase, but scaled back the proposal after citizens vented their frustration.
"It would add to the already economically burdened, to those underemployed and seeking employment," Tammy Kennedy of Wesley Chapel said. "Gas is a vital part of getting to work or to hospital appointments."
About 40 people testified during the 3½-hour meeting. Opposition to the tax ran about 5 to 1. Those backing it said it was needed to improve county roads.
"Pasco County has made a huge investment in its roads. If you have an investment like that, you can't just let it fall apart," said John Hagen, president of the Pasco Economic Development Council. "It would be like buying a Cadillac and deciding to not change the oil."
The tax, if approved at the full 5 cents, would have cost drivers an average of $67 per year.
The levy would have raised an estimated $5.9 million between January and September if the full 5 cents was approved. Most would have gone toward the county's road maintenance fund.
After a peak of $8.9 million in 2008, the fund is now at $6.3 million. Because of the cuts, the number of workers to maintain roads has dropped from 90 to 40. Responding to a call to fix a pothole, which used to take seven days, now takes 47 days.
"We've dug ourselves into a hole," public works director Mike Garrett told commissioners.
The vote preceded a separate public hearing about a proposed increase in the millage rate. That hearing was the first of two this month connected to next year's $1.16 billion county budget.
Officials are proposing to raise the rate for the general fund, which pays for county operations not supported by fees, from 6.862 mills to 7.344 mills. The municipal fire service unit, which pays for fire and rescue services, would go from 1.541 mills to 1.717 mills.
A mill represents $1 for every $1,000 of taxable value. So, for the owner of a home valued at $150,000 with $50,000 in exemptions, the two changes would translate to an $82 tax increase.