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Hernando County commissioners premature in dismissing gas tax increase

Talk about bad timing. Five days ago, Hernando County commissioners gave short shrift to the idea of increasing the local gasoline tax by up to three pennies a gallon.

Never mind that the price of gas went up 35 cents a gallon over the past month to $2.38 for regular unleaded, according to the AAA report for the Tampa Bay region. Never mind that the three cents would add just 1.2 percent to the current cost of gasoline. Never mind that the money would be used exclusively for road projects adding capacity to Hernando's highways.

No, commissioners weren't interested because they couldn't offer to trade the gas tax increase for a corresponding property tax reduction to their constituents.

It was an odd strategy from the outset considering the county is looking at what it now estimated to be an $11 million shortfall in next year's budget. A more sound budgeting technique would be to increase revenue, not trade it. It turned out to be illegal anyway. The gas tax money must be used for new roads and cannot be swapped for property tax dollars earmarked for road maintenance.

So with little comment, three commissioners, David Russell, Jeff Stabins and Jim Adkins, signaled their disinterest. Increasing the sales tax requires a fourth-fifths majority. Their action, incidentally, wasn't on the proposed increase. Commissioners declined to even schedule a public hearing to vet the idea more thoroughly before a final vote.

The decision was premature. For proof, just consider the afternoon session when the commission reconvened as the Metropolitan Planning Organization — the panel, with a city of Brooksville representative added, that is charged with overseeing the highway network.

After killing the gas tax increase, commissioners heard their top-rated road priority, widening of County Line Road, will require a minimum of $24 million in local dollars as part of the financing for the still-unfunded $209 million project.

Bad timing, indeed.

A three-cent-on-the-gallon increase would produce about $1.9 million annually for the county. Even with flat gas purchases — and revenue is expected to fall 10 percent this year — we're talking about a dozen years of new gas tax receipts to accumulate the county's share. Local contributions are required because the county is counting on federal highway dollars to cover three-quarters of the cost with the state and local governments splitting the remainder.

Widening County Line Road to four lanes with room for the eventual expansion to six lanes in intended to bolster east-west traffic that swelled after growth followed the opening of the Suncoast Parkway. County statistics show average weekday traffic jumped 40 percent at some points along County Line Road after the parkway opened in 2001.

The price also jumped. This is a road that carried an estimate price tag of $50 million in the 1990s and then $119 million early this decade because of escalating right of way costs. Now, improving the road from East Road through Mariner Boulevard, the Suncoast Parkway and to U.S. 41 at Ayers Road carries cost estimates (in 2007 dollars) of $122 million just for the needed right of way and $87 million for actual construction.

Of course, there is no money for it. Think it might be time to start thinking about how to finance it? The price won't be dropping and a commission scratching for dollars during a recession would be wise to consider long-range alternatives to improving its road network once the economy rebounds.

Accumulating money for County Line Road never was discussed in the commission chambers this week. It is raised here to illustrate the shortsighted approach to governing that can so dominate commission meetings.

Even so, county staffers did their best to package the gasoline tax attractively. The revenue could be used to minimize future transportation impact fees, suggested Public Works director Charles Mixson. Even Adkins wouldn't bite at that one.

County Administrator David Hamilton offered more sound reasoning. Putting the cost of improving roads on people who buy gasoline is simply a sensible user fee on motorists.

But it was bad timing for being sensible.

Hernando County commissioners premature in dismissing gas tax increase 05/30/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 30, 2009 4:31am]
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