This is what's known as the bigger bang for the buck. An unexpected influx of federal stimulus dollars, lower than anticipated construction prices and help from the state means still more transportation work will be completed around Pasco County via the Penny for Pasco sales tax.
Wednesday, Pasco Commissioners expanded the list of Penny for Pasco road improvements because of a nearly $30 million windfall. This is in addition to the 20 road safety projects identified in 2004 under the voter-approved, penny-on-the-dollar increase in the sales tax. The tax, authorized for 10 years, also raises money for school construction, public safety equipment and land preservation.
The new, big-ticket items include more than $4 million each to accelerate construction of the third phase of Clinton Avenue in east Pasco, and to rebuild intersections along Perrine Ranch Road, at Moon Lake Road and State Road 52 and at Little Road and Hudson Avenue.
The list of 14 new projects includes less expensive improvements to three intersections along Little Road, new traffic signals along Seven Springs Boulevard, traffic channels at a Ridge Road intersection and straightening out the awkward intersection of Parkway Boulevard and Shining Star Drive in Land O'Lakes.
The new construction projects also could enhance political safety. When it comes time for renewal of the Penny for Pasco, supporters can correctly tout the commission's stewardship that now shows the sales tax accomplishing even more than expected.
"For all the doubting Thomases, and some of them still do, that totally vindicates the supporters and the voters,'' said Commissioner Ann Hildebrand.
Under the tax plan, the county keeps 45 percent of the proceeds and uses half of that amount to improve road safety. The original plan was to spend $75.5 million on 20 items including resurfacing work, improved intersections, bus shelters and helping to rebuild Interstate 75 in Wesley Chapel and bolster safety on U.S. 19. But the county spent only $47 million because of federal stimulus dollars, additional funding from the state Department of Transportation and favorable construction prices. The county also expects the tax collections to exceed earlier estimates, leaving nearly $30 million for additional work.
Already there is a public call to spend the money on libraries, but such sentiment is misplaced. Libraries were not presented to the public as a benefit of the capital spending during the 2004 campaign for the tax. More importantly, it is illegal to use the sales tax proceeds — known as an infrastructure surtax — on personnel expenses. If the commission decides to keep the Centennial Park Branch library in Holiday open, it will need to do so absent Penny for Pasco dollars.
Ironically, that inability to cover payroll expenses — funding for which comes from county property taxes — is the reason why other Penny for Pasco dollars are being reallocated. The county has shelved plans to build two new fire stations with Penny for Pasco money because it can't afford the operating costs. Instead, the money will rebuild a current station, upgrade three engines and add mobile data terminals in emergency vehicles.
Commissioners also wondered aloud about the potential for added projects, including a question from Commissioner Michael Cox about building sidewalks near schools.
"Where do you really stop if you approve a sidewalk in a certain area?'' countered Commissioner Ted Schrader.
It is sound thinking. Deviating from the plan sold to voters six years ago is no way to start an eventual campaign to renew the tax.