Hernando County Administrator David Hamilton wants to talk some sense about a few cents. Hamilton wants the County Commission to consider a gasoline tax increase of up to 3 cents per gallon for road construction.
It's a familiar topic. Just nine months ago, county staffers floated the same idea as a way to generate more revenue and perhaps even lessen future transportation impact fee increases. There were no takers on the commission then and a quick discussion limited to the proverbial "No thanks.'' Commissioners refused to even schedule a public hearing.
Unfortunately, that reluctance to consider long-range transportation needs emerged again six months later when the commission unwisely halved its impact fees.
Commissioners shouldn't speed through a public debate this time, but there are indications that is exactly what could happen. Commissioner Jeff Stabins told Times staff writer Tony Marrero he wished Hamilton would "have run his idea up the flagpole to individual commissioners first'' before revealing his plans to this newspaper. Likewise, Commissioner David Russell, facing re-election this year, said "I just don't think it's the right time to be talking about it.''
Except there never is a right time to talk about it. Russell already pledged to hold the line on the property tax rate for another year despite the county looking at a projected shortfall in next year's budget of more than $4 million, even with $3 million pulled from reserves to help prop up the bottom line.
Burning through the bank account with no inclination to adjust the revenue side of the ledger is simply short-sighted financial planning. Here's why the gasoline tax idea should be studied:
• Widening County Line Road, the commission's top-rated road-building priority, will require a minimum of $24 million in local dollars as part of the financing for the $209 million project for which no funding has been identified.
• County planners have warned the recent approval of the Quarry Preserve development of regional impact application could require the commission to rethink its road-building priorities, shifting more resources north of Brooksville instead of toward the county's southern tier.
• There are 427 miles of lime-rock roads around the county, of which the commission plans to improve 3 miles a year for the next five years. Using gasoline taxes, the county also pays one-third of the cost of paving lime-rock roads when residents petition for the improvement and agree to pay the other two-thirds of the expense.
A penny-per-gallon increase would generate a little less than $700,000 annually. Certainly, a higher gasoline tax alone will not widen County Line Road, ease the infrastructure strain of the misplaced Quarry Preserve or improve more than 0.7 percent of the lime-rock roads annually. But it would help.
The commission shouldn't shy away from a conversation about paying for its transportation needs. Hoping for more federal stimulus money and offering a "no thanks'' whenever another alternative is proposed isn't much of a long-term plan.