Pasco Commissioner Jack Mariano's obsession with eliminating Pasco County's park user fees is ill-timed and misplaced. Mariano is trying to persuade his fellow commissioners to dip into reserve accounts to reverse a 2010 decision to charge $2 for daily parking at 11 parks and to assess a surcharge to youth sports league participants. The fees are again included in the next fiscal year budget beginning Oct. 1 and Mariano says to use reserves or raise the property tax rate to offset the $760,000 in user fees.
Five days ago, Mariano even told his colleagues that some of the county's prominent business owners were willing to kick in a few more bucks in property taxes to kill the fees and avoid further cuts to the parks department. Unfortunately, the time to deliberate the property tax rate is July — not September — before the commission sets an advertised millage that can be lowered. Advocating a changed tax rate now is little more than political theatrics.
Mariano's passion for recreation is understandable because the county's highly regarded park system is a valuable quality-of-life asset. He and Commissioners Henry Wilson and Ann Hildebrand correctly voted in August to keep open the swimming pool at Veterans Memorial Park by tapping $118,000 reserves. But, his current ploy to circumvent a year-old vote demonstrates a focus that is too narrow.
Mariano should extend this debate beyond Pasco's parks because other areas also have absorbed their share of the $42 million, four-year reduction in the county's general fund. The commissioner should ask the major business interests if they think it's worth a few extra dollars every week toward their annual tax bills to:
• Ensure the Hudson swimming pool remains open after next year since some commissioners consider this year's $118,000 appropriation as a one-year stopgap.
• Reopen the county pool at the Hercules Aquatic Center in northern Zephyrhills.
• Open county recreation centers on Sundays.
• Restore more frequent bus service to U.S. 19 and reduce the fare increases the commission approved two years ago.
• Return library operations to their former levels.
• Make up the 3 percent pay cut public employees are absorbing, under state legislative directive, to finance pension costs.
There are plenty of services that could use a boost from commission-approved spending, and Mariano shouldn't target the park user fees exclusively just because the early objectors came from the Hudson Beach area of his district.
He might even be surprised at the public response considering the data provided previously: Some Pasco homeowners will pay 29 percent less in county property taxes next year than they did in 2003 and some, who have owned their homes since 1995, will pay $50 less in 2012 than they did 16 years ago.
Likewise, Mariano can rightfully point to the county's own online survey of 1,300 residents in May that revealed more than half of those who expressed an opinion were in favor of a property tax increase to sustain government services. The same survey, however, showed two-thirds of the respondents advocating user fees for people using a particular service.
It is a healthy topic worthy of a vigorous public debate, but Mariano shouldn't wait until the budget's September public hearings to jump-start it. The commissioner should make sure those pro-tax business interests come to the dais throughout the year to champion Pasco's quality of life.