NEW PORT RICHEY — A new report confirms Pasco's reputation as a fiscally conservative county that ranks far below the statewide average in local government taxes and spending.
As he was digesting the figures during a workshop Tuesday, Commissioner Jack Mariano asked, "What does this mean? Are we doing good? Are we doing bad?"
Budget chief Mike Nurrenbrock replied: "Overall, what I would say is your employees are providing the best service they can on a shoestring budget."
After the meeting, Mariano took a more positive approach: "It shows we actually provide a good value for the citizens."
An October report from the business-funded group Florida TaxWatch includes the several key findings:
• Pasco ranks 47th out of 67 counties with $44,600 in taxable property value per capita. That figure is roughly 60 percent of the statewide average, meaning the housing-centric Pasco economy has a relatively small tax base.
• The county collects $420 in tax revenue per person, compared to the $660 statewide average.
• Pasco's county and city governments spend $50 per $1,000 of personal income, ranking 56th in the state. Even considering the relatively low per capita income, government provides services "at a very low price," Nurrenbrock said.
The figures get to the heart of a key question facing local governments across Florida: How much taxes do you need to provide quality services?
"I think people certainly recognize that these are tough economic times," said Commissioner Ted Schrader, citing families' cutbacks in entertainment and other discretionary spending. "I suspect they understand the county is making similar decisions."
As Pasco debated this summer whether to close the remaining two county pools, it sparked a push back from many county residents. But the outcry was far more subdued compared with budget meetings in other Tampa Bay cities and counties.
"They don't necessarily like (the level of service), but they accept it," Schrader said.
Added Commissioner Ann Hildebrand: "I don't think people by and large are dissatisfied. I think people think they're getting a pretty good bargain for what they pay for."
During the workshop, commissioners also discussed hard data about customer satisfaction levels.
A 2009 survey showed that 51 percent of residents thought county services were either "excellent" or "good." That figure jumped to 60 percent the next year, but fell back to 53 percent in this year's study.
Part of the change could stem from a different methodology in the 2009 poll. It took a random sampling of residents, compared to subsequent polls that relied on responses from those who visited the county website. Pasco plans to pay for a national firm to conduct another random sampling next year.
Heather Grimes, the county's customer service director, also suggested that the drop could be part of a larger trend. "We saw the rankings for federal and state government also go way down this year," she said.
Schrader noted that Congress has an approval rating in the single digits. Hildebrand pointed to the county's stubbornly high unemployment rate, which is higher than both the state and national rates.
But there could be another explanation. Perhaps folks just aren't happy with the amount of services they pay for.
Mariano, a key opponent of new $2 parking fees at 11 county parks, has lobbied for a slightly higher property tax rate to offset those fees.
"With the further cutbacks in service, I think people are saying, 'I'm paying more fees, but I'm getting less service,' " he said.
Lee Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.