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Pasco’s first responders make financial pitches to County Commission

The annual budget tug-o-war begins in earnest as fire and sheriffs officials detail their needs
Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco
Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco
Published Apr. 9

DADE CITY — Local firefighters didn’t pull their punches this week as they made the case to county commissioners about what’s at stake if they don’t see more money in the coming months.

Last year, in more than 41,000 calls, it took Pasco fire and rescue more than 10 minutes to arrive at an emergency, a response time not meeting industry standards, said Robert Fuerst, representing Pasco’s professional firefighters union. That has put both lives and property at risk, he said.

From January 1 to mid-March, the county’s fire and rescue service has logged the equivalent of 1,586 minutes with a “Signal 40,″ which means that the county was without any ambulance available to take a call.

Promised new fire stations and added ambulances still aren’t on line yet, he said.

“We need this board to be the public safety advocates they claim to be and provide the funding we so desperately need,’' Fuerst said. “Only then will Pasco have a chance at being a premier county.”

With that appeal, the annual tug-o-war for tax dollars has began in earnest as commissioners met to begin discussing their budget priorities.

Sheriff Chris Nocco raised his own dire warning to commissioners.

He repeated the message he had given them at a workshop gearing up for the new Penny for Pasco campaign last week. His deputy numbers are way below the average based on population compared to other Florida counties, he said. And with Pasco growing as fast as it is, he needs two new deputies for every 1,000 new residents who move to the county.

Nocco already had suggested at that workshop that his office get a bigger piece of the sales tax pie in the next round, if voters approve. He urged the commission to commit to not taking any of his current $111-million law enforcement budget away.

“We’re going to fall behind,” he said. New residents are “going to want to get the service or they’re going to be really angry and start pointing fingers.”

While every year in growing counties such as Pasco, with rising home values and hope of another year of double-digit property tax revenue increases, this year’s money scramble has risen to a new level with a few twists.

One is Nocco’s decision to turn jail operations over to the county on October 1, when the new budget year begins. That transition, which was sprung on some county officials just last week, brings deep financial implications and it’s something county officials are still trying to get their arms around.

The other is the preparation work for the Penny for Pasco campaign, which voters will consider later this year. This time the extra penny tax, which would go into effect in 2024 when the current tax expires, would last for 15 years and it would bring an estimated. $1.9 billion into the county’s coffers.

For the last 20 years of Pasco’s extra penny sales tax, 45 percent of the money has been distributed to schools, 45 percent to the county and 10 percent to Pasco’s cities. But the pitches by Nocco and passionate pleas by long-time advocates of the penny tax to not rob one part of the proceeds to pay more to another, show real concerns about how commissioners might prioritize spending this time.

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On Tuesday, several members of the team that has previously pitched the sales tax to voters urged commissioners to leave the current spending mix alone. Nocco wasn’t seeking more funding for his office from the portion for schools or cities, a spokeswoman told the Tampa Bay Times last week. He wants the extra money to be taken from the county portion.

Transportation gets 40 percent of the county’s allotment with economic development, public safety and parks and environmentally sensitive lands each getting 20 percent.

For Richard Riley, keeping environmental resources as an integral part of that mix ensures the quality of life that Pasco residents want.

”Don’t mess with the formula proven twice before,” said Jennifer Seney, who has been involved with the penny sales tax since its inception. “You run the risk of sinking this penny.”

While public safety agencies always will need more money, she said, environmental groups fought hard to be sure that sensitive lands were included in the campaign. That mixture of different interests, from economic development to saving special open spaces, was the “synergy” that allowed the passage of the tax rate twice before, Seney said.

Commissioners will discuss the sales tax priorities in the coming months along with other budgeting issues. The changeover of the jail to the county from the sheriff, is already high on the list for discussion.

Pasco Clerk of Courts Nikki Alvarez-Sowles told commissioners that she just learned of the switch last week, which was when Nocco announced the change to jail employees in a video. For Alvarez-Sowles, the change will have a big impact on her finance department and, with her budget proposal due to the county May 1, she is concerned about having enough time to do everything she will need to do before the change.

One important task needed as soon as possible is hiring an auditor to conduct a transition audit. Alvarez-Sowles said that was necessary to be sure the county knew everything it was getting from the sheriff before the actual transition takes place.

County administrator Dan Biles said there are many details the county still has to work out, including how it will share with Nocco in the future new property tax revenue growth once the county runs the jail. In the past, Nocco got 50 percent of that new money.

Biles said he plans a budget workshop with the County Commission on May 24.

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