Pasco commissioners need to take their drive for a gas tax increase out of the fast lane. A proposal unveiled last week called for a 5-cents-per-gallon increase in the county gasoline tax to maintain roads and median landscaping, fill potholes, grade dirt roads, trim trees in county rights-of-way, replenish a paving assessment fund and pay the electricity bills for highway streetlights.
Clearly some of these needs are more pressing than others. A third of the county's arterial and collector routes — heavily traveled multilane roads like Little Road in west Pasco — require immediate paving. Failure to address those maintenance issues likely will lead to even more expensive reconstruction in the future. Without an influx of new money, the county is staring at $64 million worth of paving work (at current pricing) that would take up to 14 years to complete.
The backlog is growing because the road maintenance budget is down 30 percent from 2008, and fewer than 40 full-time workers maintain a network that has added 240 lane miles in the same five years. The cuts are part of the reduced county spending from four consecutive years of declining property values as well as voter-approved tax exemptions.
Road maintenance is imperative, but the case for other transit-related spending is not as clear cut. The tax proposal called for $1 million a year for street lighting but did not say how much the county spends now to light major roads or how many more miles could be illuminated with the gas tax increase. Along state highways, the county pays for lighting and maintenance of streetlights installed by the Florida Department of Transportation.
The tax plan also calls for putting $500,000 a year into a residential paving assessment that runs the risk of nearly exhausting its accounts by 2016. The county needs to do a better job collecting from the benefiting property owners before asking the rest of the driving public to help finance neighborhood street pavings. More than $7 million worth of paving assessment bills to property owners remain outstanding.
A nickel-per-gallon tax hike would bring a projected $7.7 million to the county annually. Commissioner Ted Schrader, the strongest proponent of the increase, calculated that a motorist driving 20,000 miles a year in a vehicle with a fuel efficiency rating of 15 miles per gallon would pay an additional $65 a year. It's a cost Schrader wrongly termed a small investment for such a large benefit. That logic fails to acknowledge the expense to multicar families.
These annual budget debates are now routine as commissioners try to balance competing obligations. Commissioner Henry Wilson wants to give a 3 percent raise to workers who have had no salary adjustments for five years. Commissioner Jack Mariano wants to keep libraries open longer and waive park fees. And Schrader and Commissioner Pat Mulieri advocate the increased gas tax with Mulieri, in particular, complaining about the shoddy appearance of Pasco's roads.
County Administrator John Gallagher called the proposed gas tax increase the price of being a premier county. But asking drivers to absorb premier spending is ill timed. This gas tax pitch, though tied to the 2014 fiscal budget, comes just four months after voters agreed to a 10-year, $500 million sales tax that earmarks $90 million for transportation.
There are more equitable financing tools available. Property tax rates can always be adjusted in future years as county property tax rolls rebound, but a gasoline tax, plugged into annual maintenance budgets, would never expire.
Commissioners should consider alternatives to maintaining Pasco's road network.