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Clues to Pasco County's future can be found in past, present

Was it really 10 years ago that we fretted about Y2K?

Time flies. "New millennium'' is so last decade.

So, as we prepare to enter a calendar year without consecutive zeros in the middle, it's worth a look back at a couple of events that shaped Pasco County and the quality of life that exists here.

You should be used to this. Traditionally, newspapers like to do year-end stories recapping the events of the past 12 months. This time, however, we will focus on the first decade of the 21st century and, for this exercise, we will not include crime, weather or the so-called spot news events.

The big story, by the way, is repetitive. Consider it a proverbial kick in the pants to Pasco County that actually started in 1999 and spilled into 2000. Then it was the citizens' lawsuit and subsequent settlement regarding the county's comprehensive land use plan that came on the heels of a controversial rezoning of former ranch land in Land O'Lakes that became the Oakstead subdivision.

This wasn't some NIMBY griping about new neighbors. This was an authoritative legal challenge to the status quo that had allowed the development community to exert exorbitant influence over how county government worked. In exchange for dropping the suit, the county promised multiple environmental protections — some of which remain works in progress — a shakeup of its advisory boards and an understanding that the way it had conducted business would no longer be acceptable.

It helped set the stage for multiple resident-friendly initiatives that focused on aesthetics — sign controls, landscaping requirements, tree protections — and a slew of impact fees to help pay for growth.

Since the start of this decade, three more noteworthy kicks came crashing into the county's backside, two of them delivered by voters.

The first occurred in March 2004. It was the adoption of the Penny for Pasco, a 1 percent increase in the sales tax to pay for new schools, improve roads, buy police and fire equipment and preserve environmentally sensitive land. In essence, the voters said they value education, transportation, public safety and green space and were willing to quantify their fondness for such things with a few more cents out of their pockets when they made a purchase.

It was a counter to the no-new-tax philosophy that had dimmed political courage on the commission dais. The success of the penny campaign helped embolden fiscally conservative Sen. Mike Fasano to suggest another tax for indigent health care, an idea that has since been scuttled. Likewise, the tangible benefits of the Penny for Pasco will be at the heart of the looming debate about a future tax proposal to pay for mass transit.

The second kick from voters came courtesy of their endorsement of Amendment One in January 2008. The same people who were willing to tax themselves for schools and other desirable amenities said they wanted to cut the property taxes that pay for the people to staff parks and libraries, patrol roads in police cars and answer fire and ambulance calls.

Whatever the rationale for the disconnect — a slumping economy, crashing real estate market and the Legislature's previous inability to control homeowners insurance rates — the voters told local governments to make do with less. The result is reduced public services, more fees and a growing reliance on the private sector to do things formerly handled by local governments.

The third and final kick came not from voters, but from a consultant hired by the county and the Economic Development Council. The Urban Land Institute looked around Pasco County and delivered a harsh confirmation in 2008 that the culture in county government had to change once again if Pasco wanted to successfully diversify its economy from an overreliance on residential home building and the low-wage service jobs that accompany it.

The introspection means long-range strategic ideas and short-term business plans should take the place of routine gripes about such things as dirt roads, zoning variances and other individual commission pet peeves.

Sector planning is giving way to proposals for urban service and market areas, transit-friendly development, and a recognition that aging west Pasco needs a facelift.

Where will we be in 2020? We could have light rail, large employment centers and a metropolitan core — or we could be stuck in congested traffic commuting to another county for work from our suburban homesteads.

Nobody said predicting the future was easy. But here is an indication that an abundant supply of patience will be required. At the outset of this decade, Pasco County spent ample time debating how to spend its tourist tax money and how to get Ridge Road extended. Those same discussions continued earlier this month during the final commission meeting of this decade.

Maybe we need another kick in the backside.

Clues to Pasco County's future can be found in past, present 12/26/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 26, 2009 10:57am]

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