Freshman Pasco County Commissioner Seth Weightman stood his ground for hours on Tuesday trying to convince fellow board members that now is not the time to burden property owners with higher taxes.
Commissioners grappled with the 2024 county spending plan for more than four hours, listening to residents challenged by rising costs due to inflation who didn’t want to see tax increases. They also struggled among themselves to reach a consensus on a budget and tax rate.
The commission finally settled on a spending plan and a general fund operating tax rate of 7.57 mills, which is down slightly from the current 7.6076 mills. The new rate is $7.57 in tax for every $1,000 of appraised taxable property value. For a home valued at $300,000 after the homestead exemption, the county portion of the property tax would be $2,271.
Joseph Lisak, who owns a home in New Port Richey, said he believes Pasco County hasn’t handled its booming growth appropriately and now taxpayers are paying the price. While other places build services as growth takes place, he said Pasco has fallen behind.
“You didn’t kick the can,” he said. “You dropped the ball.”
Cindy Skarda, who lives in San Antonio, also was critical of the county’s handling of growth. She said current residents cannot afford to live in Pasco now and that a tax hike would compound that. “To drive people out of their homes, it isn’t right,” she said.
Much of the commission discussion Tuesday evening focused on the hike requested for the county’s fire tax. Originally, county staff asked for a 27.5% increase to keep the fire department solvent and prepare it for its next 10 years. The funds were needed to keep Pasco firefighters from quitting to work for jurisdictions that pay more and to prepare for the opening and staffing of two new stations and preparation for as many of five more in the coming years.
County administrator Mike Carballa had presented a request for a 2.3 mill fire tax rate compared to the current 1.8036 mills, an increase that would require all five commissioners to vote in favor. He brought a smaller number to commissioners on Tuesday, but Weightman opposed that increase as well.
He said that Pasco residents did not need the county to put any more pressure on their budgets and said he didn’t want to go over 2 mills. That prompted a series of motions to approve a tax rate that didn’t pass.
Commission chairperson Jack Mariano said that the fire department needed the bump in funding given it had been years since the fire tax rate had been increased. Last year firefighters made numerous public pleas for help, pointing out that response times to emergency calls were increasing.
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Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said she didn’t want it on her conscience if a firetruck couldn’t get to someone in time to save their life. She also said she understood the challenges faced by residents.
“The cost of living here has been increasing,” Starkey said. “People’s lives have definitely been affected ... it’s a tough seat we’re sitting in here.”
In the end, Weightman reluctantly agreed to a compromise, a fire tax of 2.1225 mills, a 17.7% increase. While Carballa’s hope had been to get fire fees to a point that would handle the department’s needs for 10 years, the increase that was approved should give the fire department four more solvent years, Carballa said.
Weightman also pushed for a reduction in the tax rate for the operating fund, and after some discussion, Starkey proposed a slight decrease and set in motion another back-and-forth series of motions that failed. Ultimately, the commission agreed to the slight decrease in the operating fund tax rate, which would lower revenue projections by $13.9 million.
The new approved budget totals $2.1 billion.