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Pasco's economic crunch leaves hard choices for commissioners

NEW PORT RICHEY — If this were a fairy tale, Pasco County would be the damsel in distress. A wicked witch of an economy has stirred up a toxic brew that includes a $30 million budget hole next year, followed by several more years of lower revenues. A projected $200 million shortfall in the capital improvement plan over the next five years. More meddling from state lawmakers. Rising unemployment and foreclosure rates.

As top staffers painted a gloomy picture Tuesday, county commissioners hoped for a knight in shining armor: high wage jobs, if they can be lured.

For now, though, service cuts and higher taxes are likely to be on the way.

"What (revenues) we gained in new construction over the last nine years have all been wiped out," budget director Mike Nurrenbrock told commissioners at the daylong workshop at Pasco-Hernando Community College.

He said the county's options include service cuts, downsizing, creating new revenues and increases in existing revenues, and an increase in the county's property tax rate, which has steadily decreased since 1995.

Commissioner Ted Schrader said he would support a tax rate increase as long as it raised the same level of revenue as this year. Officials refer to that as the rollback rate, and it does not have to be advertised as a tax increase.

"I'd be okay with the rollback rate," Schrader said.

The purpose of the workshop, led by the county's consultants, the International City-County Management Association, was to begin to develop a strategic plan. County officials used the economic downturn as an opportunity to rethink how the county does business. Happening simultaneously is an overhaul of the county's land development code and the evaluation of its comprehensive plan.

During the workshop, commissioners listened as department heads gave an overview of demographic trends.

For example, the county has gotten slightly younger with a median age of 42.1. Families also have gotten slightly larger. The majority of the county remains white, though there are pockets of minorities.

Poverty will remain concentrated east of Dade City. By 2035 and 2050, most of the population will remain on the west coast, though the south-central corridor will have grown significantly.

Recommendations were for the U.S. 19 corridor to be redeveloped, while the State Road 54 corridor is ripe for further development.

After taking in all the information, commissioners listened to results of town meetings with focus groups and surveys that were sent to residents.

The most significant challenges were identified as managing growth and economic development, followed by the budget deficit.

County commissioners drafted a document of the biggest challenges that included economic development, financial sustainability, identifying areas best for growth, maintaining acceptable levels of service, improving transportation and protecting the environment. A suggested way to do that was by extending the Penny for Pasco sales tax, which helps generate money to buy sensitive lands.

County Commissioner Michael Cox offered another suggestion to maintaining the county's quality of life: Stop approving housing developments and strip malls. Establish a fund that can be used to provide incentives to attract high-wage businesses like financial giant T. Rowe Price, which the county is vying to land with $30 million in state and local sweeteners.

"We can't keep doing the same thing we've been doing," he said. "We have to change direction."

Lisa Buie can be reached at buie@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4604.

Fast Facts

To learn more

To see highlights from the strategic planning workshop and demographic information, visit: portal.pascocountyfl.net/portal/server.pt/community/county_administration/220/leap_into_excellence

Pasco's economic crunch leaves hard choices for commissioners 05/05/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 5, 2009 9:43pm]

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