NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco commissioners moved ahead Tuesday to reduce the proposed property tax rate, declining to reconsider new $2 vehicle fees at a dozen county parks or give additional funding to Pasco Sheriff Bob White.
They didn't get many pats on the backs for their decision: Tuesday morning's meeting was packed with Hudson Beach residents protesting the park fees, and the evening meeting was jammed with residents — including about 65 uniformed officers — wanting more money for the sheriff to hire new deputies.
Commissioners voted 4-1 to approve the tax rate for the budget year starting Oct. 1. Commissioner Jack Mariano cast the dissenting vote because he disagreed with the new parks fees.
Earlier in the day, Mariano tried to get his colleagues to scrap the park fees and instead increase the property tax rate by roughly $5 for a homesteaded property worth $100,000. Counting other new charges, including ones for youth leagues, the fees are expected to raise nearly $877,000.
"Right now the one thing people can afford to do is go to our parks," said Mariano, who was cheered on by about a dozen Hudson Beach residents and business owners.
But the other commissioners said they hear just as much from property owners who don't want any tax increase, and one of them criticized Mariano for only recently coming out against the fees.
Parks director Rick Buckman first proposed the fees earlier this summer as a way to avoid closing parks on certain days and shuttering swimming pools. Park visitors would deposit their fees in meters or "iron rangers," or buy $60 annual passes.
"You know what, you're grandstanding," said Commissioner Michael Cox, noting that Mariano has previously "been with us every step of the way" on the park fee proposal. "Congratulations on such a great leadership opportunity," Cox said.
Mariano denied he was grandstanding and said he had asked for information about what kind of tax increase it would take to make up the $877,000 deficit. He said he did not make up his mind until he received that information.
"I don't know what your interpretation is, but you're dead wrong on that," Mariano told Cox. "I think I was listening, paying attention, getting all the information I should. … I stand by my decision."
No one who spoke from the community at the morning meeting supported the fees, saying they would put a burden on those who could least afford it. One business owner, Mike Malacos, collected more than 2,000 signatures over the weekend asking commissioners to reconsider the plan.
Jeff Sylvan of Hudson said many seniors like to visit Hudson Beach every morning to drink coffee and read the newspaper. "The elderly people who go out there every day … are going to be penalized for $2 a day," he said.
Vehicle fees at the Hudson Beach park, a congested commercial district, are expected to raise about $22,000, said Buckman.
At the evening meeting, dozens of residents and deputies implored commissioners to grant Sheriff Bob White his request for a roughly $4 million increase, part of which would pay for 28 new deputies in west Pasco. Charlotte Kiefer of Dade City told commissioners they needed to re-prioritize, and she chastised Mariano for a remark he made this summer that libraries and parks had comparable value to law enforcement.
"Reading a book is great, Jack, but if you're dead it doesn't do you any good," she said.
Earlier this summer, commissioners considered a proposal to raise the general fund tax rate by 22 cents per $1,000 in property value. That gave officials a nearly $4.4 million reserve account, some of which was used to restore a cut position in the veterans services office, keep Centennial Library open and add back positions in the elderly nutrition department and social services.
That left them with about $4.3 million, plus a $823,000 rebate check from Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative.
Commissioners decided two weeks ago to move about $2 million of that into a hurricane reserve account. The remainder will go back to taxpayers, by reducing the size of the property tax increase.
County budget director Mike Nurrenbrock estimated that move shaved off the entire increase, leaving a general fund tax rate steady at its current level, $6.37 per $1,000 of assessed value.
Because of a declining tax base, that means the county will take in about $14.5 million less in property taxes than it did in the current year — and about $150,000 less than it did in 2006, he said.
The rate for the county's fire district was set at $1.43 per $1,000, a 23-cent increase over the current year.