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A little loose change would keep pools open in Pasco

Bob Ferguson meet Jack Mariano.

Ferguson, 56, is a self-described old hippie who once headed up a Florida panther watch program for the Tampa Bay Sierra Club in Pasco County. He eventually relocated to North Carolina, then returned to Land O'Lakes two years ago to care for his elderly mother. Grace Whitaker died in January at the age of 87 and now Ferguson is one of nine people who has inherited a share of his mother's Mitchell Road mobile home and 1-acre waterfront lot. It's in a rural part of Land O'Lakes, not far from Tower Road.

Mariano, the Hudson-based county commissioner, fought unsuccessfully last year to reduce park fees and now wants to avoid closing the county's swimming pools in Hudson and Land O'Lakes, as the staff has proposed.

Ferguson and Mariano think alike. Both believe the public should be willing to kick in some spare change each year to maintain the pools.

In Ferguson's case, he believes his mother's property is undervalued. A higher appraisal would generate more revenue for the county. A skeptic might suggest Ferguson has an ulterior motive — trying to inflate the appraisal of property that will be sold.

"If I were a property owner, oh yeah, I'd be thinking, 'Keep my taxes low, keep my head down.' But, I care more about good government than just my own head,'' Ferguson said.

He points to the information released by Pasco County that some homeowners will be paying 29 percent less in property taxes in the coming year than they did in 2003.

"If everybody would pay a few more nickels, we could keep these swimming pools open,'' Ferguson said. "We're really, really getting a bargain.''

It is the kind of logic that Mariano continues to push.

Last year, late in the budget deliberations, he declined to support new park user fees and instead suggested a small property tax increase. Other commissioners dismissed his late-in-the-game switch and pointed out that struggling businesses also must pay the higher taxes.

So, this year, a tax increase is not at the top of Mariano's suggestions. To bolster parks and to keep the pools open, he favors putting less money into reserve accounts or reducing the $2 million in new money for economic development incentives.

His third option would be a tax increase to not only keep the pools open, but also to kill the park fees adopted last fall, and to generate operating money for the future 23-acre park in Trinity.

Mariano views it as key to business recruitment.

"Our parks are open and free. Who else around here can say that?'' said Mariano. "It's a great way to brand the county for economic development as a place to come and raise your family.''

His quest to kill the user fees didn't have the support of a commission majority previously, and I'm not sure that is going to change this time around.

The swimming pools, however, should be a different story.

The county is proposing to close the two swimming pools to save $328,000 annual operating costs that are offset by $39,000 in admission fees. The county is trying to devise a private-sector agreement to keep the pools open, but here is another suggestion:

To generate $330,000, the commission needs to raise the proposed property tax rate by 0.0171 mills. In other words, less than 2 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.

Less than 2 cents.

Such a minute tax increase also frees up the $39,000 in pool admission fees to help offset future capital costs like resurfacing the pools and replacing heaters.

For the owner of a house valued at $120,000, with $50,000 worth of homestead exemptions, a 0.0171 millage increase amounts to $1.20 in additional tax annually. That's 10 cents a month or less than 3 cents a week.

And let's not forget, this would be $1.20 from the same homeowner who paid a tax bill that was $221.51 higher in 2003. You think someone will complain if their tax reduction totals just $220.31?

Less than three weeks ago, commissioners sat in a work session and contemplated a future parks system that might include some public-private tourism venture that could entail a 120-acre sports field complex at Wiregrass Ranch in Wesley Chapel, a water park at Sunwest Harbourtowne in Aripeka, or a similar wave park and athletic fields in Odessa.

The commission's lack of vision does not allow it to see the obvious paradox. They will consider building a water-related park for tourists, but won't keep open a couple of swimming pools for their own residents.

Even for less than 2 cents.

A little loose change would keep pools open in Pasco 07/16/11 [Last modified: Friday, July 15, 2011 5:31pm]
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