Thursday, April 19, 2018
Opinion

Bowen: Improving Pasco services doesn't dead end with roads

I'm starting to understand Commissioner Jack Mariano's logic.

Well, not entirely, but at least when it comes to the fees Pasco County charges to use its parks. It's $2 per vehicle to park at the county's beach and wilderness parks. Families also have to pay a surcharge if their kids are part of a youth sports league using county fields.

Mariano complains about this annually. Usually multiple times. He has suggested a small property tax increase to offset the costs. Other commissioners have argued correctly that the parking charge is a user fee. It's still a bargain compared to surrounding counties' parks and they wonder why east Pasco residents should pay higher property taxes just so the beach parking lot 40 miles away can be a freebie.

Pasco County added these fees and cut tens of millions of dollars from its general fund in the 2008 and 2009 budget years to meet state-mandated spending caps and voter-approved tax exemptions. Four consecutive years of declining property values continued the austerity for several more budget cycles.

The year 2008 represents the initial decline from what had been the high water mark of county services. That date is now relevant because two weeks ago, in proposing a five-cents-per-gallon increase in the local gasoline tax, a citizens advisory committee recommended the county go beyond its 2008 standard for patching potholes, repaving asphalt and edging median and curbside landscape.

It's an interesting pitch considering just a year ago commissioners reallocated its current gas tax that had been earmarked for new road construction. Instead, commissioners, with Mariano and Henry Wilson dissenting, budgeted the money for road maintenance after hearing:

• One-third of the county's arterial and collector routes — heavily traveled multilane roads like Little Road in west Pasco — required immediate paving.

• The county faced $64 million worth of paving work (at current pricing) that would take up to 14 years to complete.

• The road maintenance budget was down 30 percent from 2008, and had fewer than 40 full-time workers maintaining a network that has added 240 lane miles over the previous five years.

Now, the commission is considering a recommendation to use a share of a proposed gas tax increase to plug even more money into maintaining roads. Essentially, the citizens group, the county's Mobility Fee Advisory Committee, duplicated Mariano's position on parks: People should be willing to pay a little more for better service. And commissioners, by agreeing to add $8 million for road construction and maintenance to the upcoming county budget — without identifying how it will be financed — accepted that premise.

If 2008 is the benchmark, consider the other county services worthy of restoration:

In 2008, kids could plunge into a county-operated swimming pool at the Hercules Aquatic Center in Zephyrhills and at the Grove Community Center in west Pasco. Not any more. The county drained them four years ago.

You could go to recreation centers in Holiday, Hudson and Land O'Lakes on a Sunday and play some pick-up basketball in air-conditioned comfort. Only outdoor courts are available now. The buildings don't open on Sundays

You could stay at the library past 8 p.m. or you could go on a Monday. There was a popular concert series to enjoy as well. Library branches now close earlier and are open just five days a week. The county killed the concerts to save $10,000.

Before 2008, an emergency ride in an ambulance cost $375. The county increased the charge to $525 that year. It wasn't the only fee that went up. A daily pass to a county pool went from $1.75 to $3, swim lessons jumped from $20 to $35, weekly summer camps went up $20 and the cost of camping at a county park doubled.

The county starting charging sports leagues to prepare fields for soccer, baseball and football games. Now, it's up to the league themselves to line the fields for games.

The county raised fares on its public transportation system, whacked the number of code enforcement officers and ran its fire department at a deficit.

The 2008 budget also was the first of six successive years that county employees received no across-the-board pay increases. That changed in the current budget, but the 3 percent salary increase simply offset a Legislature-required contribution to the state pension system.

There are a lot of county services that could use a financial respite. Raise taxes to better maintain the transportation network? Maybe a better question is: Why are we stopping at just roads?

I'll bet it's a question that Mariano asks.

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