NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco County drivers could pay up to a nickel more for each gallon of gasoline if county staffers have their way.
At a workshop Tuesday, staffers made their case for increasing the local gas tax up to 5 cents a gallon. The extra $7.7 million it would generate would free up other money to shore up the county's dwindling road maintenance fund.
It also would infuse $500,000 into the county's residential paving assessment fund, which is owed $7.7 million by delinquent property owners and is expected to be down to only $1.2 million in cash by 2016 if nothing is done.
"It's not going to get any better," County Administrator John Gallagher told county commissioners. "It's getting worse." He said the best option for coming up with additional revenue is raising the gas tax, with the other option as property taxes.
The county currently charges 7 cents per gallon. Administrators say a 5 cent increase is needed just to raise service to 2008 levels. They blame rising insurance costs, aging equipment, more roads and more sidewalks, which require more edging to maintain their appearance. Trails, which have grown in recent years, also aren't maintained by the state.
Staffers noted that the county's road maintenance fund, which had $8.9 million in 2008, now has $6.3 million. At the same time, the number of lane miles needing county maintenance has increased by 240 over the past five years.
Increasing the gas tax would require "super-majority" support from at least four of the five county commissioners. If approved, Gallagher estimated the hike would cost the average driver an extra $67 a year.
"It doesn't mean the price of gas is automatically going to jump five cents," Gallagher said, adding that some other counties that charge a higher tax still have comparable prices.
Diesel would not be affected by the increase.
In order to start collecting the revenue Jan. 1, commissioners would need to vote on the idea before Oct. 1. But it's not clear the votes are there.
"In our push to become a premier community, I have a problem with that park fee we put in place," said Commissioner Jack Mariano, who has long been a vocal critic of charging $2 per vehicle in many county parks. He said he wanted to see the property tax option for raising more revenue, and talk to city leaders before making a final decision.
"I want to see those park fees go away and our libraries stay open the way they should," he said.
Commissioner Henry Wilson Jr. also expressed misgivings.
"I have mixed feelings," he said, adding that a decision to increase the gas tax seemed inconsistent with a decision made to hold off on increasing the county's tourism tax two weeks ago because of the sour economy.
But Commission Chairman Ted Schrader, who did not support the tourism tax, said the gas tax is different because it would be earmarked for specific projects.
"The need is clearly there," he said. "I think it's a small price to pay. Visitors coming to this county are going to buy gas while they're here."
He urged Mariano to allow staff to do further research and bring the matter forward so more discussion could take place in the window that the law allows. A public hearing also is required before an increase can be approved.
"What they're asking for today is to allow administration to include it in the budget," Schrader said. "It can be trimmed later. If we kill it today, I think that's an injustice."
Commissioner Pat Mulieri also expressed support for an increase and told Mariano she had heard no complaints about park fees. Commissioner Kathryn Starkey did not attend Tuesday's workshop.
Commissioners agreed to hear more information at future meetings.