NEW PORT RICHEY — Residents' attitudes toward Pasco County are slightly more negative than a couple of years ago, but people are more willing to pay for the services they want.
At least that's the case with the roughly 1,500 people who took an online survey or attended one of three town hall meetings that county officials sponsored as part of the annual budget planning.
Fewer rated Pasco County as an excellent or good place to work, raise a family or retire than they did in 2009, according to an analysis of three years of surveys.
Officials chalked most of it up to the sour economy.
"I wasn't really surprised," said Commission Chairwoman Ann Hildebrand, noting that people have been dealing with double digit unemployment, high gasoline prices and lower home values.
County officials began doing the surveys two years ago when tax revenues hit the skids. The hope was to find out what kinds of cuts residents would tolerate and whether they would pay to keep certain services. This year, county officials saw a 2.5 percent drop in home values, which translates into a worst-case scenario of a $5.6 million revenue shortfall. Though still a drop, it was a lot less than officials had feared.
The county invited residents to take an online survey and/or attend meetings held in Dade City or New Port Richey. No meetings were held in central Pasco. Hildebrand said officials scheduled one there on a Saturday last year in an effort to accommodate working families, but few people attended.
Despite the overall increased pessimism, more than 50 percent still rated Pasco as either excellent or good as a place to live, raise children and retire. The only area not receiving positive ratings by a majority was Pasco County as a place to work: That slipped from nearly 40 percent last year to a little more than 30 percent this year.
As for property taxes, for the first time, nearly 50 percent said they would be willing to pay more. In 2009, about two-thirds of survey respondents opposed a property tax increase. Also, about 68 percent of respondents said they would support user fees similar to those enacted this year for county parks.
Other findings from the survey:
• About 70 percent rated the quality of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office as excellent or good, about the same as the previous two years.
• Fewer residents feel good about economic development, with only 30 percent giving it a favorable rating two years ago and only 20 percent giving it high rankings this year.
• Those who responded think county employees do a good job. About 80 percent gave them a positive rating.
• A majority of online respondents rated services as "what I would expect." But among those who attended town hall meetings only 43 percent offered that rating. About half who attended meetings said services "could be better." County officials attributed the differences to the fact that people with specific problems were more likely to come vent at a meeting.
• When it came to cuts, the county's Cooperative Extension Service was what most people preferred to see on the chopping block, with a little more than 60 percent supporting a cut. Animal Services was next, with 47 percent, followed by public transportation with 46 percent. About 42 percent don't mind cutting libraries, while 39 percent felt that way about parks. Services receiving the fewest "cut" votes were Emergency Medical Services and Fire Rescue, each getting about 19 percent.
But the extension service "has such a small budget (that cutting it) is not going to get us anywhere," said Heather Grimes, the county's performance development administrator who presented the survey results.
After the presentation at a workshop Thursday, Commissioner Pat Mulieri said she was shocked at the percentage of people who supported cuts to public transportation.
"We sit and listen in these (transportation planning) meetings, and people say they want more buses," she said.
However, Chief Assistant County Administrator Michele Baker pointed out that more than 90 percent of those taking the survey also said they had never ridden the bus.
"Nobody wants to us to cut services they use," Baker said.