State Rep. Amber Mariano says, if re-elected, her first legislative priority for 2019 will be a bill allowing Pasco County to pay for coastal canal dredging via higher fees for boat owners.
That's news to the some of the people who would have to share the expense — boat owners who don't live in west Pasco.
"That's insane. That's crazy,'' said David Hipps of Land O' Lakes and the owner of Land O' Lakes Marine on U.S. 41.
Mariano, R-Hudson, who is in a re-election battle with Democrat Linda Jack for the state House District 36 seat in west Pasco, shared her logic publicly during a Sept. 17 debate sponsored by the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce.
"People who live on the water can't even get their boats out of their canals,'' said Mariano. "So my first legislative priority would be to sponsor a local bill to increase the boat fee to be able to fund these dredging projects up and down the county and help increase the property values and the quality of life here in west Pasco.''
Under current state law, counties can charge an optional boat registration fee that equates to a more than 40 percent surcharge. The fees vary according to vessel size. The state fee to register a so-called Class 1 boat measuring 16 to 26 feet — the most common vessel in Pasco — is $33.50. Adding the county registration fee increases the cost by $14.38 from which an additional $1 goes to the state for manatee protection.
According to the Department of Motor Vehicles, boaters registered more than 24,000 vessels in Pasco County in 2016. Those registrations would have generated approximately $220,000 to the county if it had assessed the optional fee.
Thirteen Florida counties, including neighboring Hillsborough, Pinellas and Polk, charge the local fee. Under state law, the money is intended to pay for "patrol, regulation, and maintenance of the lakes, rivers, and waters and for other boating-related activities of such municipality or county.'' Canal dredging is not an authorized expenditure. That's why Mariano wants a Pasco-specific bill to allow the local registration fee to be used for that purpose.
A year ago, a consultant recommended the county dredge a dozen west Pasco canals in Sea Pines, Hudson, Sea Ranch, Pleasure Isles, Gulf Harbors, Westport and Driftwood at an estimated cost of up to $13.5 million. Spreading the expense among the owners of nearly 4,900 parcels in those neighborhoods could mean an annual assessment of $177 for 15 years.
The county has investigated alternatives in the meantime and reported in August to a citizens committee that a local contractor said it could spot dredge three channels for approximately $1 million. The report from the Dewberry consulting firm had estimated the cost of dredging just the Gulf Harbors and Hudson channels at $7.5 million.
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Mariano's father, Commissioner Jack Mariano, also advocates the higher boat fee idea and said the west Pasco boating community has been nearly universally receptive.
"Everybody loves the idea,'' said the commissioner before acknowledging he hadn't considered the implications for people who boat elsewhere on freshwater lakes.
Some residents in central Pasco said they didn't see a benefit.
"None whatsoever,'' said Ray Schweitzer of Land O' Lakes who lives in Oakstead and stores his boat on the Anclote River. "The only ones who benefit will be those with homes or business on those canals and they should just tack it onto their (property) tax bills if they find it necessary to dredge.''
"It's foolish,'' said Christie Zimmer who lives in Lake Padgett Estates in Land O' Lakes. "Why should I pay for their privilege in Gulf Harbors? It would be like telling Gulf Harbors residents to come over here and clean up my lake.''
Commissioner Kathryn Starkey, who lives in Gulf Harbors, said she is supportive of the higher boat fee, but acknowledged that waterfront property owners must assume a greater share of the cost.
"I do think that dredging the coastline here is important for the county,'' said Starkey. "I think people form all over use the boat ramps to put their boats in the water and having channels that are navigable benefits the whole county.''
Commissioner MIke Moore, whose district is based in central Pasco, faces his own re-election contest in November. He didn't share the enthusiasm of the west side commissioners for a higher boat fee.
"First I've heard of it,'' said Moore, noting the commission's draft list of 2019 legislative priorities makes no mention of a local bill to increase the boat fee.
"I would need more details. We should be having that conversation on the dais and I would need to talk to my constituents,'' he said. "If my constituents aren't going to be supportive of it, then I can't support it.''
Jack, Rep. Mariano's opponent, said water access and water quality are important, but said the district faces greater challenges including public education funding, income inequality, homelessness and substance abuse.
Contact C.T. Bowen at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2.