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TIGHT BUDGET TIMES BRING INNOVATIVE IDEAS

Adormant idea to make impact fees more palatable to builders is being commandeered by Pasco County to help finance paving dirt roads. The plan, known by builders as capacity assessment fees, allows the cost of infrastructure construction to be assigned to a building lot, instead of to a new home. The expense can be paid off over time - rather than in a lump sum - and the responsibility remains affixed to the property if a house is sold before the fee is paid in full. It is the same logic behind community development districts, the common financing mechanism underwriting construction of streets and amenities in new neighborhoods.

Now, commissioners are investigating a similar financing tool to make residential street paving more affordable. The plan could spread the cost over 20 years at a potentially lower interest rate. Incentives would be offered for early payments to encourage a steady cash flow to a road-building fund or the cost would be charged as a separate assessment as part of annual property tax bills. That, too, ensures a timely payment to the county instead of forcing the government to collect on a lien after a home is sold.

The idea, first offered by the staff and seized on by Commissioner Michael Cox, came Tuesday during an afternoon workshop on paving dirt roads. The new (old?) thinking was needed since nobody broached the idea of raising the gasoline tax as a different commission did in a similar roundtable discussion six years ago. Most of that proposed increase failed to materialize and the commission could only agree to raise the tax one-cent per gallon to finance roadside drainage work. After law week's mandate to lower property taxes, nobody was in the mood to debate up to a nickle-per-gallon tax increase to raise $7.4-million annually.

Commissioners are is looking for answers because 11 percent of Pasco County maintained roads (191 miles) are unpaved and that isn't counting 320 miles of privately owned dirt roads. The roads frequently require emergency repairs - the county has spent $250,000 over the past eight years for quick fixes - and occasionally ambulances, garbage trucks and other service vehicles have been unable to travel them. During dry season, residents complain of dust from dirt and lime rock, and rainy weather brings worries of wash outs.

Currently, road repavings are financed by a neighborhood assessment, but higher costs combined with a less affluent demographic has limited the affordability of that program in rural areas. Commissioner Pat Mulieri wants the county to consider cheaper alternatives to traditional asphalt, but the up-front cost savings are marginal at best if the roads require additional work in just seven years as staff predicted. Mulieri suggested residents' individual finances could change in that span to make more permanent fixes viable later.

We disagree. Mulieri should think of it this way. If Pasco County had begun using cheaper substitutes in 1994, the year she joined the commission, those same rural residents now could be looking at paying for a third repair to their roads.

The county is right to focus on a more long-term solution. Making it affordable is the key and will become more imperative as miles of residential streets constructed during the 1980s - before the advent of community development districts -- require rebuilding.

Commissioners and the county staff also shouldn't give short shrift to the builders association the next time it asks for a discussion of capacity assessment fees. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

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