Pasco to consider referendum for bigger jail, new fire stations costing $185 million

Published January 31 2018
Updated February 1 2018

DADE CITY — Pasco voters could be asked in November to tax themselves to expand the county jail and build new fire stations as part of a proposed $185 million bond issue for public safety.

The idea, revealed publicly at a Jan. 30 Pasco commission workshop in Dade City, is scheduled to be discussed again by commissioners Feb. 13 during a workshop in New Port Richey.

"Needs for public safety are there,’’ said Sheriff Chris Nocco.

Early versions of the plan call for borrowing $128 million for a 1,000-bed expansion of the jail and $57 million for fire station construction. It is conceived as a 30-year bond costing property owners a combined .4493 mills, or just less than 45 cents of new tax for every $1,000 of assessed property value.

For a $100,000 home with homestead exemptions, it would translate to $22.27 annually in additional property taxes. The owner of a homesteaded property appraised at $200,000 would pay $67.40 a year.

The money would finance construction of four new fire stations at: State Road 52 and Majestic Boulevard; SR 52 and the Suncoast Parkway; at Bexley Ranch in Land O’ Lakes; and at Meadow Pointe near State Road 56 in Wesley Chapel.

Five other existing stations would be rebuilt to larger dimensions to make room for additional vehicles and crews. Those would be stations: on Seven Springs Boulevard; at U.S. 19 and Cross Bayou Boulevard in west Pasco; at U.S. 41 and Central Boulevard in Land O’Lakes; in Shady Hills; and in Crystal Springs.

The capital construction, however, could come amid a pinch on revenue to pay operating costs. In November, voters also will be able to amend the Florida Constitution to add another $25,000 homestead exemption that would remove millions of dollars from the county’s general and fire department budgets. Commissioners also are considering tax proposals for the county’s parks and libraries.

"We still have to figure out how to operate these after we build them,’’ said County Administrator Dan Biles.

The public safety plan got an early endorsement from Nocco whose agency is confronting crowding at the county detention center in Land O’Lakes.

"If we can get this bond, I support it fully,’’ he told commissioners.

The jail, built in 1990 and expanded multiple times since, is designed to hold 1,432 inmates. Temporary housing on site pushes maximum capacity to 1,900.

On Jan. 29, the jail population stood at 1,842 inmates and the detention center had no additional space for females. Projections call for the inmate population to reach as high as 2,368 by the end of 2020.

In the interim, Nocco asked commissioners to consider leasing trailers that can house up to a total 160 inmates for a cost of nearly $2 million annually for a three-year lease. The price of fencing, cameras, other security measures and a dozen new corrections deputies also would have to be added.

The trailer option is less expensive than sending inmates to out-of-county facilities. That cost could reach $8.25 million annually, plus transportation and medical expenses, to keep 200 inmates in Polk County.

The expense of out-of-county housing also made the bond issue look more affordable. Paying off the debt to expand the jail totals $6.5 million a year, Biles said.

Both the jail population and response times for fire and ambulance calls are affected by a growing population. Calls to the fire department grew from 55,000 a year in 2010 to 71,000 last year; projections indicate calls for service will reach 95,000 by 2026.

Chief Scott Cassin pointed to Jan. 22 as a typically busy day for Pasco Fire Rescue. The agency sent 511 vehicles to 265 calls for service. Response time was just less than 15 minutes, and crews spent an average of almost 90 minutes at each scene.

Response times have been growing, he acknowledged. Meanwhile, the only new fire station on the horizon is one planned near Overpass Road in Wesley Chapel. Construction on that is scheduled to start later this year.

If the commission decides to move forward with the November referendum, it must schedule public hearings, adopt an ordinance and send ballot language to the Supervisor of Elections Office in June.

Reach C.T. Bowen at [email protected] or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2