WESLEY CHAPEL — Pasco Economic Development Council president John Hagen calls it a gift — a treasure of such virtue that it carries with it a moral obligation to ensure better economic opportunities and quality of life for local residents.
The gift is the voter-authorized renewal of the Penny for Pasco sales tax, collection of which begins Jan. 1 for the next 10 years. Approved in November 2012, the tax will aid schools, roads, land preservation and public safety, and also provide $45 million over the next decade for economic development.
"It's a gift we can get every decade if we spend it wisely,'' Hagen told Pasco County commissioners last week. "If we fail at this, we actually could undermine the whole Penny for Pasco, which is a half-billion dollars. There is risk if we don't do it right.''
Hagen didn't say it, but proof is available nearby. Just look one county to the north, where Hernando County voters just rejected a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax for schools, roads and economic development amid heavy public criticism of that county's refusal to reinstate impact fees for education and transportation. The voters' distrust of the development community and commission now leaves a $62 million hole in the school district's capital budget.
Hagen's comments came during a commission workshop, held on the Porter Campus of Pasco-Hernando State College in Wesley Chapel, to brainstorm exactly how the sales tax proceeds could best be used to bolster the local economy. It is the second workshop in six months, but much has happened since the previous gathering:
• T. Rowe Price announced that it was abandoning its planned expansion in Pasco County, a project first revealed in 2008. It was supposed to add up to 1,200 news jobs at a 72-acre campus on the south side of State Road 54 in the Long Lake Ranch development in Lutz. The county is now trying to help market the site.
• Raymond James Financial Inc. acknowledged its proposed expansion into Wesley Chapel is five years away or longer, though the company plans to complete its purchase of 65 acres not far from the PHSC campus. The company previously said it planned build a two-tower satellite campus and create about 750 jobs there.
Both announcements are disappointing to a county trying to shed its bedroom community status, where 78 percent of the tax base is residential property and nearly 90,000 workers leave the county each day for jobs elsewhere.
• Popular or not, the commission adopted a new 5 cents per gallon tax on gas to finance long-term road improvements favored by economic development interests. However, the county failed to heed a suggestion from the Urban Land Institute to use the new gas tax to supplant Penny for Pasco dollars earmarked for transportation and to reallocate more than $3 million annually for libraries, parks and other cultural/recreational enhancements.
• State lawmakers, meanwhile, included $10 million for a convention/performing arts center for PHSC and the Pasco School District at the Wesley Chapel campus, though the eventual price tag is projected to be at least $50 million. The initial Penny for Pasco proposal from the EDC in April included $4 million for a convention center. Hagen said last week the county would lobby for additional state funding.
Against that backdrop, ideas presented to commissioners included forming an oversight committee to monitor how the Penny for Pasco economic development dollars are spent; arranging a bank line of credit so the county has money available nearly immediately, rather than waiting on tax dollars to accumulate, and devising formal procedures to vet unsolicited bids from the private sector for economic development partnerships.
Most of the money is expected to be allocated as incentives to what the EDC calls "product development'' — a business park, industrial spec buildings and pad-ready building sites to accommodate companies seeking to expand or relocate to Pasco.
Both Hagen and County Administrator Michele Baker said the county should not be pinpointing where in Pasco those facilities would locate. It's preferable, Hagen said, "to talk about the kind of projects we want, and then let the competition begin.''
Formal resolutions establishing the mechanics of distributing the economic development money are expected to be considered by commissioners in late January.