NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco County drivers might end up paying 5 cents more for every gallon of gas to pay for road maintenance after years of budget cuts.
The increase, if approved by Pasco officials, would put the county at the top for what Tampa Bay area motorists pay in so-called local option taxes, or gas taxes. The levy would jump to 12 cents a gallon, the maximum state law allows.
Drivers in Hernando pay 9 cents a gallon — that's the bay area's next highest level — while Pinellas and Hillsborough motorists pay 7 cents per gallon in gas taxes.
"It would definitely hurt," said Matthew Weber, 36, of Tarpon Springs who commutes about 80 miles a day to his job at Sherwin Williams in Brooksville.
Gas prices are cheaper in Port Richey and New Port Richey, where Weber fills up, but the hike might prompt him to buy gas elsewhere, or purchase a more fuel efficient vehicle than his Mitsubishi Montero SUV.
"I think a Prius might be in my future," he said.
Pasco commissioners haven't signed off on the increase and could whittle it down before a public hearing Sept. 10. The new tax would go into effect Oct. 1.
On Tuesday, county staff told commissioners that everything from mowing grass to fixing potholes is lagging, with some jobs delayed weeks or even months because of funding cuts that started with the recession.
Pasco's road maintenance budget was $8.9 million in 2008, but now is down to $6.3 million. Like other counties, Pasco supplements the budget, but during the recession that amount gradually declined too.
In practical terms, that has meant longer response times to citizen complaints.
At the start of the recession in 2007, it took about a week to respond to a citizen request to fix a pothole. Now it takes about 46 days, said public works director Mike Garrett. And what used to take nine days to trim a low-hanging branch in a right-of-way now takes 105 days, he said.
The county staff says the situation will only worsen as roads age and fall into disrepair. The road maintenance staff is less than half of what it was in 2007.
Commissioners don't doubt the need to tackle road maintenance, but they're divided on whether to raise gas taxes to accomplish that. They might push for a smaller increase.
"I'm going to support what the majority will support," Commission Chairman Ted Schrader said after Tuesday's meeting. "If there's enough support for 5 cents, I'll support it, but I don't think there's enough support for 5 cents. I'm comfortable with 3 or 4 cents."
Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said she doesn't want to hike gas taxes either, but worries what will happen to roads if the commission doesn't act.
"If we don't get our maintenance program going it will cost us a lot more later on," she said.
Gas taxes typically go toward patching pot holes, mowing grass, trimming trees and tending to routine repairs. Many counties supplement those levies with other taxes, some spread over several different funds.
Hernando, for example, devotes $4.9 million in property taxes to road maintenance in addition to its gas tax levy. Hillsborough allocates an additional $14.5 from its general fund and $1.7 from its municipal service fund for road work.
By comparison, Pasco allocates relatively little to its road budget — $2.9 million in sales taxes on top the 7-cent gas tax.
County staff recommended increasing the gas tax because it's collected from local drivers as well as motorists outside the county.
County Administrator Michele Baker, in her presentation to commissioners, said motorists might pay more for gas in Pasco, but prices already vary widely among bay area service stations, depending on location, traffic, the stations' profit margins and other costs.
The alternative to not hiking taxes, she said, is further deterioration of county roads.
Not everybody is worried about the increase. Tiffany Lindiakos, 18, a student at Pasco-Hernando Community College, said she only drives about 50 miles a week, spending about $25 every two weeks on gas.
"To me it doesn't make much of a difference," she said. "It goes up and down a lot anyways."
Rich Shopes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6236.