Friday, November 24, 2017

Don't exclude parks, libraries from tax debate


Pasco County commissioners shouldn't be afraid to treat their parks and libraries the same way they treat the county's road network. Tuesday, commissioners agreed to send 1,200 surveys to residents asking, among other things, if they prefer paying a higher gasoline or property tax to improve road maintenance.

Separately, on a 3-2 vote, commissioners declined additional polling to ask if expanding library hours and ending park fees was worth a minimal property tax increase.

"Why don't you want to ask this question?'' argued Commissioner Jack Mariano. "I don't get it.'' He was joined by Commissioner Henry Wilson.

They are right. Though this issue has been debated previously — and we've supported establishment of park user fees — the commission majority must take off its blinders.

New data from the county indicates the $2-per-car parking fee collected at 11 county parks generates just $280,000 a year, less than half of the annual income projected when the commission adopted the fees in 2010. The $10-per-child fee from youth sports participants brings in another $70,000. Both fees could be eliminated for a property tax of less than 2 cents per $1,000 of property value — the equivalent of 99 cents of tax on a $100,000 single-family house with a homestead exemption. A similar amount would allow Pasco's library branches to re-open on Mondays.

A commission majority of Ted Schrader, Pat Mulieri and Kathryn Starkey shouldn't be so closed-minded. Their reticence came just after the entire board agreed to ask the public about financing road maintenance. That poll question will come even though the county has not offered a complete justification for a 5-cents-per-gallon gas tax increase or a property tax of 43 cents per $1,000 of assessed value (equal to $21.50 in property tax for a $100,000 homesteaded house).

Either tax would raise the $7.75 million a year the county says it needs to: maintain roads, median landscapes and sidewalks; fill potholes; grade dirt roads; trim trees in county rights-of-way; replenish a paving assessment fund and pay the electricity bill for highway street lights.

The survey is premature. The commission is asking this question while simultaneously trying to pursue $7.6 million in delinquent accounts in its residential street-paving program. The county should exhaust that tactic before pushing a new tax to cover a shortfall. Likewise, the street-lighting costs appeared to be little more than an after-thought on how to spend some of the proposed new tax revenue.

To its credit, the county has done a much better job of delineating its road maintenance concerns. A third of the county's arterial and collector routes — heavily traveled multilane roads — require immediate paving. Failure to do so likely will lead to more expensive reconstruction in the future. Without an influx of new money, the county is facing $64 million worth of paving work that would take up to 14 years to complete.

Budgets for parks, libraries and road maintenance are all down significantly from 2008 in response to falling property values and additional tax exemptions. The parks department eliminated 49 positions, closed community centers and swimming pools, shut down its recreation centers on Sundays, put off maintenance, and starting charging fees to park and to play youth sports. The library system lost 30 positions and closed branches on Mondays to offset a 23 percent budget cut. The road-maintenance budget is down 30 percent from four years ago even though the county added 240 lanes miles to its network in the same time period.

If commissioners think county roads are worth a renewed investment, shouldn't they be willing to find out if the public feels likewise about its parks and libraries?


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