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Pasco to focus on future challenges from sea-level rise to next pandemic

A new department will coordinate efforts to snag funding available to avert threats on the horizon.
 
Heavy rain from Hurricane Hermine caused flooding in west Pasco County in 2016. Now Pasco is establishing a county resiliency department, dedicating staff to be ready for whatever the future holds, from storm damage to another pandemic.
Heavy rain from Hurricane Hermine caused flooding in west Pasco County in 2016. Now Pasco is establishing a county resiliency department, dedicating staff to be ready for whatever the future holds, from storm damage to another pandemic. [ Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Jan. 30

With Pasco County hugging the Gulf of Mexico, officials and residents have always known they are vulnerable. But hurricanes and sea-level rise are not the only potential threats in the county’s future.

To be ready for whatever challenges lie ahead, Pasco County government took a step earlier this month to improve the chances of being better able to effectively provide the services the community will need — no matter what.

The County Commission unanimously approved establishment of the Office of Strategy and Sustainability, a new county department that will coordinate efforts to prepare for that unknown future, said Marc Bellas, the county’s organizational performance manager.

A key part of that job will be to aggressively seek funding for projects that will help. Bellas said the county knows that larger jurisdictions to the south are already capitalizing on ways to do that. “It’s time for us to get on board,” said Bellas, who will lead the new effort.

Commissioner Jack Mariano keyed in on the real-world ways that could happen. He said that with Pasco’s coastline at risk for rising waters, communities from Gulf Harbors to Hudson could benefit from higher seawalls in an effort to keep gulf waters out of neighborhoods. The Anclote power plant also is in a low-lying area, and he said utility officials are interested in working with the county.

Bellas said there are many kinds of threats that fall under the idea of sustainability. The point of focus is “how individuals and institutions survive and adapt no matter what kind of acute shock or chronic stressors they experience.”

One of those that had significant impact was the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, which had not been built into a county operational plan. “It caught us flat-footed,” he said. But other things can also happen, such as economic downturns, increasing costs, unfunded mandates and unforeseen revenue challenges like the one Pasco commissioners are fighting in the Live Local Law, which could cost Pasco tens of millions of property tax dollars in the coming years if no changes are made.

“We didn’t see that one happening,” Bellas said.

Marc Bellas is Pasco County's organizational performance manager.
Marc Bellas is Pasco County's organizational performance manager. [ MARC A. BELLAS | Handout ]

The county has also seen models of what the coast will look like in the decades ahead as sea-level rise begins to take its toll. “There’s science behind it,” he said. “We can’t avoid it.”

All of these possible future threats demonstrate the county’s need to make plans years in advance rather than the typical year-by-year planning effort. “If we don’t do this now, we’re going to be caught flat-footed again,” Bellas said. “It’s our time to do this.”

The department will also have the job of keeping the ideas of sustainability and resiliency across other county functions. Currently Pasco is in the middle of developing a vulnerability assessment, with results expected in a few months.

That assessment will help the county develop a plan to “initiate and support projects improving, reinforcing, and restoring our infrastructure, our natural environment and coastline, and the county’s critical assets,” according to a county memo. “Establishment of the Office of Strategy and Sustainability effectively positions Pasco County to attract and draw down substantial state and federal funding from multiple sources, for multiple projects to the benefit of our citizens.”

The county is also in the middle of updating its Comprehensive Plan to guide future growth decisions until 2050, another process where the idea of making the county more resilient will be incorporated, officials said.

Commissioners approved the $129,000 cost of creating the new office. The funds will pay to replace two of the county staff members from other departments who will move over into the sustainability office this year. A third existing employee will also be added to the new team and funding for that position will be allocated next year, Bellas said.