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Coronavirus darkens Pasco state appropriations

But, public works spending could aid post-coronavirus recovery, says senator
The state of Florida Capitol complex in Tallahassee. Times (2012) [Times (2012)]

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The high five didn’t come. Nor the back slapping or self-aggrandizing press releases.

The legislative-approved $93.2 billion state budget for the coming year has a litany of Pasco-specific spending items, including more than $11 million for two public works projects intended to steer economic development in east Pasco.

But it’s brought a mostly muted response in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic that shut down much of Florida’s tourism and hospitality industries. It has increased the likelihood that falling sales tax collections could require a reconfiguration of the state’s spending priorities for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

“That’s a great question. I really don’t know,’’ Rep. Randy Maggard, R-Dade City, said about the prospects of local appropriations going by the wayside. ”We did the budget based on what we knew at the time. ... This is uncharted water for all of us.’’

Maggard, elevated via a 2019 special election to fill the seat formerly held by Florida Veterans Affairs director Danny Burgess, just concluded his first legislative session. By normal standards, he would be entitled to a victory lap around his east Pasco district for the financial haul.

The budget from lawmakers includes $5.75 million to install water and sewer service along Handcart Road. It is expected to jump start residential and commercial growth in an area of rural, privately owned land that has been planned as the Village of Pasadena Hills.

Related: Concrete plan signals renewed industrial development in rural east Pasco

The spending plan also includes $5.469 million for traffic improvements leading to a new industrial park in the high-poverty area of Lacoochee. JDR Investments purchased the vacant, 67-acre site last year. Concrete company Reinforced Earth Co. agreed to lease 25 acres, with an option for 10 more, to move its plant there from the Dade City Business Center.

Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said those projects and similar infrastructure work could be key to the state’s post-coronavirus economic recovery.

"Our first and only priority now is to get everyone through the next couple of months, maybe six months. We’ve got to take care of our families, take care of our seniors, take care of our nursing homes, take care of our most vulnerable,'' said Simpson. "But once that is done, and we’re through this, then I think phase two is that we have work available ... and a lot these projects you’re talking about are going to put a lot of people to work.''

Other spending highlights for east Pasco include: $2.3 million for two signalized intersections on U.S. 301, Pretty Pond Road and Medical Arts Court, Zephyrhills; $1.25 million for Saint Leo University to begin a bachelor’s degree program in robotics; and $1 million for the Sara Vande Berg Tennis Center in Zephyrhills.

How excited were Saint Leo University officials? They declined comment this week because Gov. Ron DeSantis had yet to sign the budget.

Other Pasco projects included in the budget are:

  • $850,000 to landscape U.S. 41 medians in Land O’ Lakes. DeSantis vetoed this in 2019.
  • $850,000 to relieve flooding along Quail Hollow Boulevard, Wesley Chapel.
  • $750,000 for construction of Pasco County sheriff’s training center known as FIRST for Forensic Institute for Research Security and Tactics.
  • $550,000 in two separate allocations for Metropolitan Ministries to try to reduce homelessness.
  • $475,000 for the FIRST center to conduct a cyber-grid review for the state of Florida.
  • $400,000 for K9 Partners for Patriots.
  • $250,000 for the Prodigy Cultural Arts Program.
  • $200,000 for Youth and Family Alternatives.
  • $200,000 for stormwater drainage work on Beach Street, New Port Richey.
  • $100,000 for the Veterans Alternative accelerated wellness program.
  • $100,000 to reduce street flooding along Mitchell Ranch Road, Trinity.
  • $100,000 for Pioneer Florida museum archives center.

There were a few expensive misses, as well. For the second consecutive year, neither $3 million in seed money to begin a $30 million Pasco events center, nor $5.9 million for fields at an expanded Arthur Engle Park in Hudson, passed muster with legislators.

Also excluded from the budget, after being vetoed in 2019, was a push for $1.8 million to extend the Cotee River trail beneath the U.S. 19 bridge at the border of New Port Richey and Port Richey.

Related: River trail link priced at $3.6 million

Initially, the city of New Port Richey asked Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson, to sponsor the request. The city later pulled back, fearing the project wouldn’t be shovel-ready in a timely manner and concerns that a second consecutive DeSantis veto would make the project ineligible for other state grant funding for another year.

"In lieu of current decisions being contemplated in relationship to the budget, I believe that the application would have been vetoed in favor of more essential services programming,'' City Manager Debbie Manns said via email.

Related: West Pasco waterfront, U.S. 41 redevelopment fall to Gov. Ron Desantis' veto

Pasco Commissioner Jack Mariano, a proponent of the project, said he was confident the trail connection would proceed even without a separate budget appropriation.

"Who knows,'' said Commissioner Mariano. "You might see all our projects taken off anyway.''

• • •

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