Pasco commissioners already are thinking about better financing for their parks and library systems. Kudos for the foresight, but an idea floated by Commission Chairman Ted Schrader to create new taxing districts is problematic.
There is no denying parks and libraries are in need of attention. Over the past five years, commissioners have closed two swimming pools and staved off, at least temporarily, a plan to drain a third pool in Hudson. They cut operating hours at recreation centers; reduced park maintenance; and charged for parking and participation in organized youth sports. They also retreated from developing a county-owned park in Trinity because of long-term operating expenses.
Libraries faced a similar fate. Since 2008, commissioners cut library operating hours 16 percent, which contributed to a 23 percent drop in visitors to 906,000 a year. At least commissioners didn't shutter a library as had been proposed originally for a branch in Holiday.
Tuesday, in giving final approval to the commission's multi-year strategic plan, Commissioner Jack Mariano correctly wondered aloud how much money the county should put into reserve accounts. Why should the county beef up reserves, he asked, while cutting spending for parks and libraries? Those two departments have been particularly hard hit as part of a $42 million, four-year reduction in the county's general funds. (Tapping $118,000 from reserves kept the pool at the Veterans Memorial Park from closing this fiscal year.)
Schrader countered by suggesting separate tax districts for parks and libraries. "The time has come to have that discussion,'' Schrader told his colleagues.
Under a so-called municipal service benefit unit, or MSBU, a property has to derive a benefit from the county service in order to be taxed. It could be an across-the-board assessment or a sliding scale based on the amount of benefit received by the property owner.
Pasco property owners currently finance separate taxing units for the county fire department and for mosquito control, which is run by an independent agency. Additionally, they pay countywide assessments for stormwater drainage and for the trash incinerator. Smaller districts exist for individual neighborhoods like Quail Hollow Village and Williamsburg West. A tax district to maintain the parks inside Lake Padgett Estates was transferred from the county to an independent agency a few years ago. Additionally, multiple neighborhoods have their own Community Development Districts to finance community parks and common properties.
Commissioners, however, killed their own plan to start a law enforcement taxing district in 2010 after coming to a tardy realization that it would result in an increased property tax rate for 90 percent of the population that lives in the unincorporated county. And Schrader himself helped kill a proposed separate property tax for parks in 2001, just seven months after being elected to the commission.
Pasco County doesn't need the gimmickry of separate taxing units to operate its parks and libraries. It just needs a stronger resolve among commissioners to invest in those quality of life enhancements.