There is little sense of austerity at the Pasco Mosquito Control District. While local governments are wrestling with potential double-digit property tax rate increases just to stave off far-reaching service cuts and employee layoffs, the independent district is proposing a tax increase to help finance staff raises for the second consecutive year.
If approved, the budget beginning Oct. 1 will include merit increases of 2.5 percent for the district's 26 employees. The current budget includes 4 percent raises. Cumulatively, that is a 6.6 percent increase over two years for district workers while other public agencies face hiring freezes, layoffs, status quo wages and austere budgets. Pasco County government workers, for example, have had their salaries frozen at 2008 levels for this year and next. Teachers had to forfeit previously negotiated salary increases for the 2008-09 school year.
Only Mosquito Control Commission Chairman Gary Joiner correctly recognized the proposed pay increase as ill-timed. He recommended against it earlier this month, but was overruled by Commissioners Matthew Abbott and Sandra Applefield. They should rethink the matter.
The proposed raises are a small part of the agency's spending, just $34,000 of a more than $6.3 million operating budget. But, the higher salaries account for nearly a quarter of the money coming in from a planned 19 percent property tax increase to nearly 19 cents per $1,000. Applefield rationalized the salary boost saying the district had the money to do it. Of course it does, if it takes the dollars from everyone paying property taxes.
We are not unsympathetic to the increasing demands on public employees earning modest wages, nor is the district tax rate construed as exorbitant. Executive Director Dennis Moore even points to the district's historically declining tax rate as proof of its sound stewardship over public money.
But it must be noted, a declining tax rate came in part because of a burgeoning tax roll from new construction and from an expansion of the district's geographic boundaries. Twice this decade, the district's borders expanded and it now covers all of Pasco County. It's easy to lower the tax rate when more people are paying into the pot.
The district, charged with spraying for mosquitoes across the county, began exclusively in west Pasco after a 1951 voter referendum. On two occasions over the past dozen years, county commissioners have debated assuming control of the district. The first discussions began after it became clear people wanted to be elected to one of three district commissioner seats simply for the remuneration — $4,800 annually to attend 12 once-a-month meetings, some of which lasted less than 30 minutes. At the time, Pasco commissioners decided a potential $160,000 annual cost savings wasn't worth the effort.
The suggestion resurfaced six years ago when the county wondered if it would be prudent to merge its planned storm water drainage improvements with mosquito control operations. Again, serious talks didn't materialize.
A district handing out raises without regard for the financial circumstances confronting its constituency invites those discussions to begin anew.