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Pasco considers smoking ban for new hires

NEW PORT RICHEY — Smokers need not apply for jobs with Pasco County under a policy officials are considering to try to rein in health care costs.

Pasco commissioners discussed a change in policy Tuesday to require prospective applicants to sign affidavits pledging they don't smoke and won't light up for the duration of their employment.

But the county staff backed away from asking commissioners to vote on the change, noting the complexities associated with enforcing the policy. Commissioners said they want to hear more feedback from other counties with similar policies. The proposal could come back later for a vote.

Under the proposed change, in cases of "reasonable suspicion," the county would require applicants to pass urine tests as a hiring condition. The county's existing 1,900 workers would be exempted from the policy but those who smoke will nonetheless be urged to quit.

"We're trying to bring health to the entire organization," performance development director Marc Bellas said.

The move comes as companies and governments nationwide are turning to nonsmoking and smoking-cessation programs to promote wellness and curb health costs. Each year, smoking or exposure to second-hand smoke costs $193 billion in health care bills and lost productivity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Locally, nonsmoking employment policies have existed for years at the Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough sheriff's offices as part of overall fitness programs. Several large employers, including Tampa General Hospital and the BayCare Health System, have banned smoking at their facilities. And over the past year Pasco education officials have considered, though not enacted, a ban as part of a tobacco-free push.

Pasco's nonsmoking policy, if ultimately approved, could take effect Oct. 1.

Current employees would be exempted, but they won't be permitted to smoke while on the clock. Smoking-cessation programs would be promoted and signs posted on government buildings proclaiming: "We support a healthy, tobacco-free environment for all who visit our campuses. We invite you to join us!"

"It's a good thing, and we have to start moving in this direction," summed up Pasco Tax Collector Mike Fasano. "We have to rein in health care costs."

It's unclear how much Pasco would save from the initiative if it moves forward. The impact wouldn't be known for years until the county hires more nonsmokers and determines the effect on health care premiums.

In other business Tuesday, commissioners considered what could become a precedent-setting way of quelling disputes between developers and residents.

To resolve tensions over a project called the Oaks at Riverside near Heritage Lake, officials are considering purchasing 41 acres for $3 million from a Clearwater developer.

Scherer Development raised the ire of homeowners from Heritage Lake and other subdivisions after proposing an apartment complex on Amazon Drive. The plan, which has dragged on for years, sparked hundreds of residents to complain at public hearings last year about potential noise, traffic and flooding.

County officials seeking a solution suggested buying the mostly wooded property. Developer Chris Scherer said he's open to the idea — provided the sale doesn't drag out for months.

Officials want to pull money from a reserve fund to buy the land and then seek an assessment from nearby residents of $125 yearly to reimburse the fund. First, however, a public hearing must be held within 60 days to hear whether residents will support the assessment, which would be paid back in 15 years. Under the simplest scenario, the land would be set aside for a park.

Rich Shopes can be reached at rshopes@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

Pasco considers smoking ban for new hires 03/25/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 25, 2014 7:24pm]
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