NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco's paving assessment program is millions in arrears and officials are trying to reverse the trend, but that could mean playing tough with delinquent home-owners.
The decades-old program to repave rural and neighborhood streets is owed about $16.2 million, with $7.7 million classified as delinquent under amortized repayment schedules laid out by the county.
If a fix isn't found soon the fund could dwindle to $1.2 million by 2016, which might then jeopardize future repavings for thousands more Pasco residents.
One potential fix was rejected last week when county commissioners couldn't muster enough votes to pass a 5-cent gas tax increase. Of the millions the tax would have raised, about $500,000 yearly would have gone toward paying down the delinquencies.
Now officials are proposing two more fixes — one to trim amounts already in arrears and another to curb future delinquencies.
County Commission Chairman Ted Schrader cautioned, however, that the second option could signal a tough new stance on delinquent property owners and trigger a debate about whether it might burden the poor and seniors on fixed incomes.
Under the program now, delinquent homeowners catch a break. Neighborhoods wanting their streets repaved can petition the county but must agree beforehand to a repayment schedule amortized over five to 15 years, depending on the project's cost.
Amounts owed by individual homeowners can vary from hundreds to several thousand dollars a year. But the program makes no distinction between those who support the work and those against it. Once a majority agrees and the project moves forward, all homeowners are on the hook for the cost, which can run into the millions.
To ensure property owners pay their debts, the county puts liens on the properties affected. So far, officials have been reluctant to foreclose on delinquent property owners, including those in arrears for years.
"We have the right to foreclose on the lien, but the county has always said we're not going to foreclose. We're not going to get into the business of taking people's houses," Public Works Director Mike Garrett said.
Now, officials are considering a change.
Instead of foreclosing, they're considering a plan to add the amount owed to tax bills for assessment projects after Jan. 1. Then if residents fail to pay, the county can sell the tax certificates to third parties, and after three years of delinquency those third parties can seek a foreclosure.
"The county cannot continue to be a lending company if it would like to continue to provide services to its citizens," said Schrader, who supports the change. "This creates some action on the property owners' part to satisfy that indebtedness."
Commissioner Kathryn Starkey favors the change as well.
"There has to be some way to make sure the roads are made driveable, and I think this is a pretty fair way to pay for them," she said.
Not everyone is supportive, though. Some homeowner groups are urging caution.
"This is not just going to be a burden on seniors but on young families," said Hugh Townsend, president of the Hunters Ridge Home Owners Association. "A lot of people's incomes have been greatly diminished, and this could pose an impact on families and seniors."
The other change commissioners are considering involves accounts already delinquent.
Officials are proposing a plan to help homeowners in arrears lower the interest if they agree to work on repaying the debt. As an incentive, officials are considering shaving 10 to 50 percent off the interest owed, depending on the total amount in arrears, Garrett said.
The commission will consider both proposals Oct. 22.
Rich Shopes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6236.