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  1. Pasco

What will $241 million get you? Lots of stuff, including a couple of fire stations you may have thought you already paid for

The largest of the four voter referendums on the Nov. 6 ballot in Pasco County is a proposal to borrow $132.15 million for a 1,000-bed expansioin of the detention center in Land O' Lakes. Shown here is Sheriff Chris Nocco in a detention center unit. TIMES.
The largest of the four voter referendums on the Nov. 6 ballot in Pasco County is a proposal to borrow $132.15 million for a 1,000-bed expansioin of the detention center in Land O' Lakes. Shown here is Sheriff Chris Nocco in a detention center unit. TIMES.
Published Oct. 9, 2018

Long-time Pasco County voters might get a sense of déjà vu this election season.

In 2004, voters approved a sales tax increase dubbed Penny for Pasco to finance school and road construction, preserve environmentally sensitive land and enhance public safety. The planned fire/rescue spending included $2.9 million to build two new fire stations, one at State Road 52 near Majestic Boulevard in Hudson and one at SR 52 near Hays Road in central Pasco.

This year, Pasco voters are being asked to consider four separate bond issues, totaling $241 million to be financed by property tax increases, to expand the jail, boost fire/rescue services, maintain parks and remodel libraries.

But the proposed project list looks a little familiar. The planned public safety spending includes building those same two fire stations on SR 52 that were supposed to be constructed with Penny for Pasco.

So what happened? And should voters feel they're being double-billed?

"That's a good question,'' said Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano.

Here's the answer: A bursting real estate bubble, voter-approved property tax exemptions and the Great Recession whacked local government budgets beginning a decade ago.

Amid that shrinking tax base and dwindling revenue, county leaders decided in 2010 to shelve the fire stations, saying they couldn't afford to hire the personnel to staff the ambulances and fire trucks. Instead, the county reallocated the money to rebuild an existing station, upgrade three engines and add data terminals in emergency vehicles.

Mariano is the only commissioner remaining in office from that 2010 decision.

"Sometimes you've got to take care of public safety,'' said Mariano. "Even though it changed the purpose, I'll stick by the staff recommendation and what we did.''

Coincidentally, this year's ballot also includes a proposed state constitutional amendment to add another $25,000 homestead property exemption. Voter approval of the amendment is expected to remove a combined $10 million from the county's general and fire department budgets in 2019.

It leads to a familiar issue tied to this year's public safety referendums.

"We still have to figure out how to operate these after we build them,'' County Administrator Dan Biles volunteered previously.

Indeed. Two of the referendums are intended to pay for a 1,000-bed expansion at the Land O' Lakes detention center and to build four new fire stations in under-served areas. The four new stations will require a total of 84 new full-time firefighters with the hiring expected to begin in 2021.

***

The public debate over the proposed bond issues has been relatively quiet. A public hearing in June drew only four speakers, none of whom objected to the borrowing. Monday evening, just eight residents and two journalists joined county staff members and consultants at the first of three community informational meetings on the referendums.

The Pasco Republican Executive Committee has yet to take a position. The Pasco Democratic Executive Committee endorsed the bond issues for parks, libraries and fire department, in part, because of the expected approval of the additional homestead exemption.

"That money's got to come from somewhere,'' said Democratic Party Chairman Michael Ledbetter.

The Democrats, however, failed to reach consensus on the jail referendum and made no recommendation.

Two Democratic candidates for county commission, Brandi Geoit and Kelly Smith, both oppose the jail referendum. They advocated for jail diversion and courts being more willing to set reasonable bail amounts to reduce crowding. Smith also said "the need for additional beds can be planned for and funded appropriately through an increase in property taxes or re-prioritizing the budget.''

The county spent $127,000 on an Orlando consultant to do polling, public workshops, social media outreach, and to distribute information via printed advertisements and on the web to get information to voters. Community meetings also were scheduled for this week (Oct. 8-11). For additional information, see go4pasco.com/

Still, the issue seems to be flying under the radar.

"I haven't gotten a single email about it,'' said Commissioner Mike Moore.

"It's October, I wish there was more information out there,'' said Mariano.

Commissioners and staff members are spreading the word via their own community appearances.

"The response has been very receptive,'' said Chairman Mike Wells Jr.


***

The county referendums are the final four items on the lengthy November ballot. They follow 13 proposed amendments to Florida's constitution. If voters approve all four referendum questions, the new property taxes would total .6107 mills, or less than 62 cents per $1,000 of taxable property value. The county projected it will cost the owner of a $100,000 home $30.54 a year by the time the borrowing is completed.

Here is the breakdown:

1) $132.15 million to finance the 1,000-bed expansion of the county jail.

The jail, built in 1990 and expanded multiple times since, is designed to hold 1,432 inmates. Temporary housing on site pushes capacity to 1,900. On Sept. 28, the jail population was 1,715 and the county was paying $73.50 per day per inmate to house 58 inmates in Seminole County.

A growing Pasco population and the number of inmates jailed as they await trial on felony charges are pushing the inmate population upward, said Sheriff Chris Nocco.

Even if voters approve the referendum, the county may lease trailers for three years to provide inmates temporary housing at a cost of $2 million annually. Money to begin hiring and training additional corrections officers is included in the current county budget.

2) $70.2 million for construction of nine fire stations. Response times for fire and ambulance calls also are affected by a growing population, the county has said. Calls to the fire department jumped from 55,000 in 2010 to 71,000 in 2017 and are projected to reach 95,000 by 2026.

Besides the two new stations on SR 52, the county also plans to build new stations at Bexley Ranch in Land O' Lakes and at Meadow Pointe near State Road 56 in Wesley Chapel. Additionally, if the bond issue is approved, five existing stations will be rebuilt. Those are at Seven Springs Boulevard, U.S. 19 and Cross Bayou Boulevard in west Pasco, at U.S. 41 and Central Boulevard in Land O' Lakes and in Shady Hills and Crystal Springs.

The rebuilt stations will not require additional staff, said Corey Dierdorff, fire department spokesman. The project list also includes a new training center and new fire/rescue vehicles.

3) $20.2 million for park renovations. Commissioners originally considered separate, permanent taxing districts for parks and libraries, but later switched to the referendum plan to cover capital costs with borrowed money. The bond will be used to eliminate the backlog of park maintenance projects that stalled during a half-dozen years of constrained county budgets.

4) $18.6 million for refurbishing libraries. Like most of the county's major parks, the library system was financed through voter-approved bond referendums in 1986. In the years since, the county expanded its Land O' Lakes and and Regency Park branches, but the other five libraries remain largely as they were when they first opened. The bond proceeds would pay to upgrade and modernize the libraries and add technological improvements.

Voters countywide will consider all four ballot questions even though multiple Pasco cities finance their own fire departments, parks and libraries. The same scenario led to bad feelings after the 1986 bond issues when the county rebuked the city of New Port Richey's request to share the library construction dollars.

"We will have those conversations with the county,'' said New Port Richey Mayor Rob Marlowe. "We need to work with the county, but I don't want it to sound like it's the least bit adversarial.''

Early voting begins Oct. 24. Election Day is Nov. 6.

Contact C.T. Bowen at ctbowen@tampabay.com or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2.

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