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CUTS TROUBLE FIRE STATIONS

While there's enough funding to build sites, Amendment 1 poses a threat to staffing.

Four years ago, Pasco residents voted to tax themselves to build things like fire stations and libraries.

A week ago, they voted with a majority of Floridians to cut the taxes that provide the money to run such amenities.

How do the two add up? Pasco County can build a fire station this year, but has no clear way of paying for firefighters to staff it.

Dan Johnson, an assistant Pasco County administrator, summed up the tax conundrum this way:

"I've got the money to buy a new car," he said, "but I don't have money to put gas in it."

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Construction on Station 39 began in early December in the Heritage Pines subdivision, east of U.S. 19 near the Pasco-Hernando line. It should be completed around October and will need a staff of 10 to answer emergency calls and respond to fires in the area.

Last year, county officials budgeted money to pay the station's staff - for six months.

Beyond that? Well, it's under review.

Because voters passed Amendment 1, Pasco stands to lose $2.7-million, about 10 percent of the property taxes that pay for fire services in next year's budget. That tax money pays for salaries and other recurring costs, but faces cuts to balance the budget for 2009.

Thus, Johnson said, every dollar is being scrutinized. But he said the department won't hire firefighters only to lay them off months later.

"We'll know before we get around to hiring anybody whether we're going to be able to staff it," he said.

Plenty of projects

Regardless, building is moving ahead in earnest.

In addition to Station 39, four new or replacement stations have been in the works for years.

A firehouse is slated for the Concord Station neighborhood off State Road 54, about 2 miles east of the Suncoast Parkway.

That, paired with relocating Station 15, attempts to accommodate the boom in population and service calls in the central part of the county, Johnson said. Station 15 moves to a 3-acre parcel in Trinity from Odessa.

Station 23, at U.S. 41 and SR 54 in Land O'Lakes, will be rebuilt on the same site. And Station 16 moves to a new development on SR 54 called Zephyr Ridge, east of Eiland Boulevard, from Morris Bridge Road near Chancey Road.

While gas tax money is paying for most of the Zephyr Ridge station, the others are funded through Penny for Pasco sales tax revenue and impact fees, Johnson said.

But those funds can't be shuffled around to cover operating costs. Plus, the bulk of the county fire department's budget sits in its own property tax fund and is not part of the larger general fund.

That means even less wiggle room.

"We are going to have to reduce the fire budget. We do not know at this point in time exactly where," Johnson said.

Jail could be affected

The situation is similar at the overcrowded Pasco County jail, where work will soon begin on a three-story, $17-million expansion to add beds for prisoners.

Johnson said construction could begin this spring, with the first floor being completed within 10 months.

"That will probably fill up (with prisoners) right away," Johnson said.

The Sheriff's Office says it cannot run the addition to the jail without hiring more detention deputies.

But budget cuts could be felt there, too.

The sheriff's budget could take a hit from the estimated $16-million that will be lost from the general fund as a result of the property tax amendment.

"We will certainly have to work with the county to meet these budgetary needs," said Doug Tobin, spokesman for Sheriff Bob White. "He hopes they look at other issues before they start cutting public safety."

Molly Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6245.

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