The people helping to shape the future of Pasco County government have a vested interest.
Development interests. Agricultural interests. Government worker's job-protection interests.
So, it would behoove John and Jane Q. Public to take an interest.
The county is taking extraordinary steps to gauge the opinions of Pasco's public constituents. There are focus groups with seniors, teenagers, homeowner associations, business representatives and rural residents. Survey questions are being asked and consultants are conducting town-hall meetings across Pasco to gather input on what services the public holds at a premium and whether taxpayers will be willing to pay more to maintain them.
The public outreach comes as the county tries to balance its next budget with nearly $29 million less attributed to falling property values, higher tax exemptions, and dwindling income from sales tax and other sources. Simultaneously, the county is rewriting its land development code and reorganizing its organizational structure as it responds to last year's Urban Land Institute report on improving the county's industrial and economic development climate.
So, six days ago members of the public gathered at Pasco-Hernando Community College's east side campus and again two days later at the west Pasco campus in the first of the citizen meetings. The overwhelming sentiment at the Dade City session came through loud and clear:
Is this it?
Less than 40 people attended and half worked in the public sector. People didn't hide their disappointment at the sparse turnout. It was slightly better Wednesday when 52 people — invited specifically to comment on growth management — came and voted on a series of 73 questions intended to measure public sentiment toward such things as transportation, land planning, recycling and the overall quality and value of government services.
Here's a sample of the thinking from Dade City participants:
• The transportation priorities are improvements to the east-west network of State Roads 52 and 54 and to help finance regional mass transit. A push for better highways should be expected in this quadrant of the county where both state roads remain two lanes and back-ups are common near Interstate 75 and at the Curley Road intersection. My guess is central Pasco residents will highlight U.S. 41 and westsiders will point to U.S. 19 as the county's biggest road needs.
• As expected, public safety is considered the primary government service with the Sheriff's Office, fire department and ambulances rated as the top three priorities. Removing those from the list of 10 services, the participants rated parks, libraries, code enforcement and social services as the next four priorities. That left services for animal control, veterans and agriculture considered to be the least essential.
• The audience offered contradictory information. Nearly 60 percent said they were satisfied with the county services. Then again, 60 percent said the services were overpriced. Does that mean people are satisfied with paying too much?
• More than 60 percent strongly support moving to a more aggressive recycling system and nearly half said they would be willing to pay more to finance it.
• Most telling was the inquiry about the direction the county is headed. With audience prodding, the consultants added a third response "undecided.'' Good thing. It was the overwhelming favorite. Only 19 percent said they thought Pasco was headed in the right direction. Half said they didn't know.
Indeed. We all feel flummoxed at times, but sitting silently on the sidelines won't help. Imagine the level of bewilderment later this year if more expensive property tax bills arrive in the mail yet people find: Fewer code enforcement officers available to check nuisance properties; fewer animal service workers to investigate cruelty complaints; library hours cut even further, limited social and veterans services and higher fees to register the kids for youth sports because the field upkeep is falling more on the private sector.
If you want the county to know your own vested interest, now is the time to do it.