Are Pasco's beachgoers willing to pay $1.15 weekly to use the coastal parks in Holiday, New Port Richey and Hudson? We're not sure, because nobody asked Tuesday during a public debate about whether property taxes or user fees are a better way to help finance Pasco County's parks and recreation budget.
Instead, residents and business owners complained of a $2 parking fee accumulating to more than $700 a year for daily use of the parks. The argument, however, failed to acknowledge the ability to buy a $60 annual pass, which equates to just more than $1 per week.
It's a nominal fee and the commission majority was correct to resist pandering to a special interest — the business owners near Robert J. Strickland Park (Hudson Beach) who said a county parking fee would hurt their businesses and unfairly penalize their customers.
The fee schedule, which also includes new charges to youth and adult athletes, is intended to raise $877,000 to supplement the parks and recreation budget. Without the fees, the commission's alternatives were increasing property taxes or draining county swimming pools and possibly selling smaller parks to offset declining revenue from an 11 percent drop in the county's tax rolls.
Commissioner Jack Mariano didn't buy, it however. His ill-conceived gambit to raise property taxes was a tardy ploy that brought a deserved admonishment from Commissioner Michael Cox for grandstanding and hypocrisy.
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself,'' Cox chided Mariano. "You were with this every step of the way.''
Cox, however, wasn't above pandering himself, suggesting the county waive the parking fees exclusively for Hudson Beach because of questions about collection and enforcement. That would be blatantly unfair to the patrons who enjoy the waterfront access at Robert K. Rees Memorial Park at Green Key and Anclote River Park.
Likewise, if Mariano, whose 5th District includes Hudson Beach and most of the residents who objected to the fees, felt a property tax increase was a better alternative, he should have suggested that idea earlier in the budget-writing process. In June, the commission unanimously agreed to move forward on the fees, but Mariano withdrew his support two weeks ago when the fees came up for a formal vote.
The Pasco parking fees are a bargain compared to neighboring governments. Hernando County for instance, approved parking fees of up to $5 a day and $75 annually for its beach parks. Municipal parking at beachfront communities in Pinellas County can be as much as $1.25 per hour.
Tuesday, commissioners indicated a willingness to use these new fees, service cuts, layoffs and some reserve accounts to maintain its general fund property tax rate of just less than 6.37 mills, or $6.37 for every $1,000 of a property's assessed value. The steady tax rate and declining assessments translates to a general fund tax cut for about two-thirds of the 127,000 homesteaders in Pasco whose property has identical market and assessed values.
In Pasco, public responses to county surveys and at town hall meetings showed people preferred user fees over increased property taxes. There shouldn't be complaints now that the commission has done just that.