Bowen: More money for cops, higher taxes for everyone

Published Aug. 6, 2015

Pasco commissioners want you to have less money in your pockets so the county's deputies and firefighters can have more money in theirs.

That is the fallout of a tentative 5.3 percent property tax rate increase commissioners approved unanimously last month, providing additional dollars for above-average salary increases for employees of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office and the county fire department.

The decision came amid promised political support from Sheriff Chris Nocco, whose employees filled the boardroom — as they do now as a matter of routine whenever the sheriff asks commissioners for more money — and after advice from Tax Collector Mike Fasano, the onetime poster child for fiscal conservatives in Pasco County.

"We will all be there to support you,'' Nocco told the board, volunteering that public safety advocates would accompany commissioners to chamber of commerce functions and homeowner association meetings to "explain the tough decisions.''

If you provide money for the raises, Fasano said, "you will have made the right decision.''

Right for whom?

Certainly not workers in other county departments. They will settle for a 3 percent salary increase under the proposed budget. Deputies are looking at nearly double that amount, and commissioners tentatively set aside money for a 5 percent wage increase for the fire department.

The sheriff can make a compelling case for his request with the aid of a $25,000 consultant's study. The department's starting pay is lower than surrounding counties, and Nocco is losing trained officers to higher-paying agencies elsewhere. In releasing his proposal for a 7.6 percent increase in salaries and benefits, the sheriff said the department was short 56 road deputies, including 26 vacancies and 30 more officers doing field training. The department has lost 103 officers to resignations since 2012 and projects it will lose 30 more before the end of 2015.

That's not the case with the firefighters. The 450-person department had three open positions last week — two captains and one firefighter. That's a vacancy rate of 0.67 percent. The rest of the County Commission payroll (separate from the constitutional officers) showed 121 vacancies among 1,650 jobs, or a vacancy rate of 7.3 percent.

So, which are the hard-to-fill jobs requiring greater pay?

Commissioner Mike Wells Jr. and Chairman Ted Schrader recognized the wage fairness issue but did little to address it.

"Our best and most important asset in this county is our employees,'' Wells said. "We're never going to be premier if our people don't believe it every single day.''

But his plan to earmark $5.4 million in BP settlement proceeds for salaries is a one-year solution that drew no support from the rest of the board.

Nocco and Commissioner Mike Moore both suggested using $2 million of the BP settlement for law enforcement's capital expenses, freeing up more money for salaries. But it, too, would have been a stopgap, requiring the commission, in the words of Moore, to "come back next year and figure it out again.''

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In the end, the commission increased its tentative tax rates for the general fund and the fire tax district by nearly one-half mill to a combined 9.4112 mills, or just less than $9.42 of tax for every $1,000 of a property's taxable value. The tax rate can come down before the start of the Oct. 1 fiscal year but cannot go higher.

Besides higher wages, commissioners will decide whether they want to spend $230,000 to add four code enforcement officers and $471,000 for a seven-person ambulance crew at the Heritage Springs fire station on County Line Road, and whether they should build a new fire station to serve the Watergrass area of Wesley Chapel. The debate over parking fees also will be resurrected.

Commissioner Jack Mariano, who opposed a gasoline tax increase last year to balance the budget, advocated last month for an even higher property tax rate to eliminate the $2-per-vehicle parking fee at some county parks and to extend library operating hours.

"People are just struggling,'' Mariano told the board.

His contention, however, failed to answer an obvious question.

If people can't afford to pay for parking, how can they afford to pay a higher tax bill?