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Pasco should use Sheriff' Bob White's $1.86 million rebate to acquire sensitive lands

Pasco Sheriff Bob White's decision to forgo replacing a portion of his patrol fleet in the coming fiscal year could provide a windfall for other capital projects, but won't stave off personnel reductions for which the sheriff had hoped.

The County Commission is a ways away from determining if lay-offs are needed. State law won't allow Penny for Pasco money to go for personnel.

The local-option sales tax must be used for specific purposes, mostly infrastructure improvements tied to growth management. Pasco voters approved the penny on the dollar tax increase in 2004 amid a very public and detailed agenda — school construction and renovations, fixing dangerous intersections, buying patrol cars, building fire stations, buying fire trucks and ambulances, and preserving environmentally sensitive land.

Last week, White announced he would return about three quarters of his anticipated sales tax allotment in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. White said his department would replace 30 patrol cruisers and a truck for its agricultural unit for about $600,000 and delay replacing 50 other vehicles. Expected savings is almost $1.86 million.

White's frugality comes at the same time sales tax revenues are declining. The school district's Penny for Pasco oversight committee reported last month that monthly sales tax collection for school construction hit an all-time low in September — $755,141, down from the average monthly collection of more than $1 million over the previous four years.

White's planned refund also coincides with Pasco commissioners hearing assorted budget scenarios all of which indicate the county's expenses are $30 million more than projected revenue. That translates to a county government unable to finance capital spending that will come with future operation and maintenance expenses — new fire stations, libraries and expansion of recreational complexes, for instance.

It also leaves unanswered the question of exactly what the sheriff's rebate can finance. County budget officials are researching past sales tax collections, future projections and the final costs of completed projects before developing a recommendation.

Here's one idea to consider. Plug the extra $1.86 million into the county's Environmental Land Acquisition and Management Program, ELAMP.

Federal stimulus money is coming to Florida for transportation construction, and the county is in line for $19 million in HUD money to focus on foreclosed homes. But money to preserve Florida's sensitive lands is vulnerable. It already escaped one budget slash when Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed cuts to the Florida Forever program that had been endorsed by state legislators.

Under Penny for Pasco, about $3.6 million is earmarked annually for land preservation after a task force identified 6,200 acres in corridors considered critical for linking existing preserves. The untapped patrol car money rebate could boost next year's allocation to land preservation by 50 percent at a time that property values are declining. It is an opportune time to try to maximize the program, even if it allows just one additional parcel to be purchased over the 10-year life of the sales tax.

Plugging the money into ELAMP would show a welcome and expanded commitment by the Pasco commission to protecting the environment even during difficult budget constraints — sentiment that went lacking in Tallahassee.

Pasco should use Sheriff' Bob White's $1.86 million rebate to acquire sensitive lands 02/18/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 27, 2009 2:58pm]
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