The idea of a more expensive boat registration fee in Pasco County is still floating around, but its suggested beneficiary could be drowning.
Commissioners Jack Mariano and Kathryn Starkey think the higher fee could help to partially finance dredging coastal canals in west Pasco. Commissioners Mike Wells Jr. and Mike Moore aren't so sure.
And the impromptu debate, begun last week during a commission meeting, is expected to continue in the near future when the matter makes its way to a formal commission agenda.
Since last fall, some elected officials have tied the prospect of a more expensive boat registration fee to dredging. During her re-election campaign, Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson, labeled it her top legislative priority and she and Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, each introduced bills this year to allow the local fee to be used specifically dredging.
The Senate approved Hooper's bill, but Mariano's failed to make it to the House floor for a vote.
It turns out, the effort may have been unnecessary. County and state lawyers now say Pasco County and any local government has the option of targeting the higher fee for dredging, because the list of uses includes "maintenance of the lakes, rivers and waters and for other boating-related activities.''
Initially, officials said they believed dredging was not an authorized use. That thinking has changed since dredging is not expressly prohibited by the state law, County Attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder told commissioners during their June 4 meeting in Dade City.
"That fee source is available to the board,'' he said.
State law allows counties to 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.
The proposed fee keeps making waves as Pasco confronts the to-be-determined cost of dredging west side canals. Private consultant Dewberry recommended in 2017 that the county complete a dozen dredging projects at a cost of up to $13.5 million. Later, county staffers said the cost could be as high as $51 million if the expense of removing sediment and rock from seven channels matched the spending in the 2005 Hudson Channel dredging.
A more accurate cost estimate is unknown, because no in-depth engineering analyses have been conducted, the county has said.
Last week, the county was poised to try to get those numbers by spending nearly $100,000 for an engineering and cost-estimate study of the Gulf Harbors and Hudson channels. Instead, the commission didn't vote on the proposed contract after learning it didn't conform with its expected funding source -- dollars tied to compensation from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Commissioner Mariano then said the county should consider raising the boat registration fee to cover the study's costs.
"There's a strong, strong demand up and down the cost for dredging,'' Mariano said.
Moore objected. His district includes the freshwater lakes in central Pasco where boat owners dock behind their vessels behind lakefront homes.
"What would their benefit be?'' he asked Mariano.
"Good question,'' Mariano answered and suggested the county be flexible with how it used the fee proceeds to try to benefit boaters beyond west Pasco.
Wells, a licensed boat captain, also objected and said the higher fee, if approved, should be earmarked for boat ramps, not dredging.
For her part, Rep. Mariano said she hoped the county didn't sink the idea.
"However they decide to do it,'' she said, "I hope they just get these (dredging) projects done.''
Contact C.T. Bowen at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2.