After a woman tripped on a raised sidewalk on Dunfries Street in St. Petersburg and cracked six teeth in 2019, she got $40,000 for her troubles from Pinellas County.
Then there was the man who fell off his bicycle after hitting a tree root growing through Lansbrook Parkway in Palm Harbor, resulting in a $7,000 settlement.
Over the past five years, Pinellas County has doled out nearly half a million dollars for three dozen trips and falls on broken sidewalks, according to county attorney Jewel White. And the potential risk to the taxpayers is piling up.
Pinellas County has a backlog of 641 sidewalk issues, about $4 million worth of work, that cannot be fixed due to a lack of transportation maintenance funding.
The transportation trust fund, which pays for critical infrastructure upkeep like sidewalk and pothole repairs, maintenance of bridges, and mowing right of ways, is nearing the deficit that county officials have anticipated for years. Now at the tipping point, the county commission will have to face the politically tricky debate punted for at least a decade: whether to increase the gas tax, the levy drivers pay at the pump that funds transportation maintenance.
This month, county administrator Barry Burton will present the County Commission with up to a five-cent gas tax increase as one solution to the roughly $10 million per year funding gap projected through 2027.
“We’re always afraid of raising taxes, but taxes are what pays for things you want,” Commissioner Pat Gerard said. “If you don’t want bumpy sidewalks and don’t want roads that have huge holes, basically you have to pay for it.”
Pinellas officials had long expected the transpiration trust fund to hit zero in 2022, as costs for maintenance and repairs go up and expenses far exceed the gas tax collected. But with fewer drivers on the road during the coronavirus pandemic, the fund is now expected to end 2022 in a $3.3 million deficit, according to public works director Kelli Levy.
The transportation trust fund is supported by revenues from the state gas tax and two local gas taxes. The first local levy is a 1-cent tax on fuel that pays for the advanced traffic management system, which uses data to increase safety and efficiency.
The second local tax levies 6-cents per gallon, which goes toward cleaning ditches, fixing potholes and sidewalks, adding guardrails and other maintenance. Each month, the county retains 60 percent of the collections from this 6-cent tax and distributes the remaining 40 percent among local municipalities.
With a total of 7 cents between the two local taxes, Pinellas County is below the 12 cent maximum allowed by state law. Hillsborough County also levies 7 cents in gas tax while Hernando, Manatee and Pasco counties tax the maximum 12 cents.
With $28.3 million in revenue to cover $38.1 million in expenditures next year, a five-cent gas tax increase would bring in almost enough money to close the gap, according to Levy. The increase would bring an additional $54 million through 2027.
While the 6-cent tax pays for maintenance and repair of infrastructure, a new tax of up to 5 cents would be limited to capital costs, which could include jobs like installing new sidewalk panels.
“From the moment I’ve come on the Commission (in 2012), we knew there was a fiscal cliff that was going to come and we’d have to eventually do something about it, but it’s been one thing after another,” Commissioner Janet Long said. “It’s not the right time, or oh my goodness, it was an election year. We’re at the point where we don’t have a lot of choices.”
Burton, the county administrator, said there are other options beyond raising the gas tax that would cut costs, like mowing the grass less often. The county will also consider using a subsidy from the general fund to address the hundreds of backlogged repairs.
“It’s a risk management issue,” Burton said. “The longer it takes, the more projects we have, the bigger backlog, then there’s a risk factor of spending bad money on people having a trip or injury so that’s not smart for our residents’ health or finances because I’d rather spend that money fixing the sidewalk.”
Other options are limited. State law allows the 1-cent Penny for Pinellas sales tax to be used on capital projects, but not maintenance.
Another complication to the gas tax debate is the county’s discussion over a potential new sales tax to fund transportation infrastructure.
That discussion was postponed early last year when the the coronavirus pandemic brought uncertainty over the economy, but Commissioner Karen Seel said officials will have to address both issues soon.
“Were trying to evaluate if it’s the appropriate time to do a transit surtax and you don’t want to do both at the same time,” Seel said.