WESLEY CHAPEL — Three years from now, residents of central Pasco won't have to drive to Hillsborough County, New Port Richey or Dade City to attend community college.
Pasco-Hernando Community College officials announced Tuesday that they have struck a deal with the Porter family, owners of Wiregrass Ranch, to donate 60 acres for a Wesley Chapel campus just north of Wiregrass Ranch High School.
"We hope to start construction in 2012 and open in 2013," PHCC president Katherine Johnson said at the annual meeting of the county's legislative delegation. The news was a bright spot at Tuesday's meeting at Wiregrass Ranch High School, in which representatives of government and nonprofit agencies pleaded for their funding to remain intact during another year that promises a multibillion dollar state budget shortfall.
College officials have sought a campus in central Pasco since at least 2003, when Robert Judson was president.
College officials estimated then that about 1,600 of the school's students live in the Wesley Chapel area. The school already offers a handful of classes at Wesley Chapel High School and Victorious Life Church. At the time, the campus itself was expected to cost about $16.5 million.
PHCC already has campuses in New Port Richey, Dade City and Brooksville, plus a Spring Hill center. A full-fledged campus is expected to open there this fall.
Lawmakers approved about $500,000 for a Wesley Chapel campus in 2005, but then-Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed it.
However, the school will now receive $58 million in state construction funds for the project.
"With the growth taking place in central Pasco, this is needed," said state Rep. Will Weatherford, who lives near the proposed campus.
Lawmakers listened but made no financial promises as other groups spoke Tuesday of their worthiness and how they saved the state money.
Thad Lowery of Operation PAR, which provides services to people with mental health and substance abuse problems, called the agency's role "critical" to the state's well-being but said no private money is likely.
"No venture capitalist is going to invest in mental health and substance abuse services," he said.
One group did get immediate action.
About 70 residents of Zephyr Shores, an east Pasco community catering to seasonal residents, got lawmakers to oppose bills that state Sen. Mike Fasano says would allow Leesburg-based Aqua Utilities to bypass the state Public Service Commission when it seeks rate increases.
"These bills were written by Aqua Utilities' lawyers," Fasano said.
Residents, some carrying signs, protested the utility's recent rate increases, which doubled what they previously charged.
They also complained about water quality. "People don't want to flush their toilets," said resident Pat Birk.
David Bussey gave the most tangible evidence: an orange-tinged sock. It was brand new and white before it was laundered in his washing machine, he said.
"We have to drink this," he said pointing to a picture of his washing machine basin that matched the sock.
Fasano, who had long been a critic of Aloha Utilities before that west Pasco system was sold to a government coalition, reiterated his disgust with private utilities that exploit customers for profits.
"No one should have to live with what you just showed us," he told Bussey.
In other news, Pasco's legislative delegation members elected Fasano as chairman and state Rep. John Legg as vice chairman for the year. The choice prompted state Sen. Ronda Storms, who lives in east Hillsborough but whose district includes a part of Pasco, to make a request.
"I love New Port Richey, but can the meetings be held in a more central location?"