Pasco County commissioners need to restrain themselves. Just because they have the authority to increase local gasoline taxes more than 80 percent doesn't mean they should. Fiscal restraint — both in the amount of the tax raised and how the money should be spent — is sorely needed.
Currently, Pasco buyers pay a 6-cent-per-gallon local tax on gasoline and 7 cents for diesel. But commissioners are scheduled to vote on a nickle-per-gallon increase on Sept. 10 in an attempt to restore its road and bridge division to 2008 levels. The department has seen its personnel drop from 90 employees to 40 over the past five years. And the public now waits nearly seven weeks for simple pothole repairs that used to be resolved in seven days. Each penny increase in the gas tax is expected to generate $1.6 million annually.
The county can make a compelling argument for a portion of the gas tax increase to help repave an aging network of arterial and collector roads and to more quickly repair potholes and other dangerous road conditions that expose the county to liability. But that only accounts for some of the planned spending. Other items include an accelerated maintenance schedule for medians, sidewalks and landscaping; additional street lighting; and replenishing the fund used for paving residential roads. But that residential paving account is supposed to be financed by property assessments within the improved neighborhoods — an arrangement that has fallen on tough times because some owners aren't paying their assessments, particularly on foreclosed properties.
It's unfair to ask property owners, who have paid their paving assessments, to absorb a higher gasoline tax to help offset deadbeats and others who choose not to settle up with the county until they sell their homes. Currently, this road-paving fund has more than $7 million outstanding.
Likewise, the commission's decision to focus so much attention on roadside appearances — landscaping, median grass and sidewalk edging — is hypocritical considering its continued refusal to finance an expanded code enforcement department with a similar mission to insure broader aesthetics. Why put the emphasis on paying for a pretty road if it becomes a gateway to rundown neighborhoods and commercial districts nearby?
The commission has options to balance its road maintenance needs. It can reallocate existing gasoline taxes, delay some long-term road construction projects and tweak its mobility fees for new single-family homes and apartments so the full 5-cent-per-gallon increase isn't needed.
Road maintenance is an important investment in a safe transportation network. But just shunting all the increased costs to a nearly-doubled local gas tax is lazy governing. The commission needs to show some discipline.