NEW PORT RICHEY — County Commissioner Jack Mariano has pulled the plug on raising boat registration fees in Pasco County.
"It's really not much of a source (of money). To cause dissension around the county is not the way to go,'' Mariano told fellow commissioners in a June 18 meeting.
His comments came two weeks after the commission debated, but reached no resolution, on Mariano's proposal to increase the cost of registering a boat in Pasco County with the extra revenue earmarked for dredging coastal canals in west Pasco.
The idea of a higher fee rankled some boat owners using fresh-water lakes in central Pasco, rather than navigating canals to the Gulf of Mexico. They welcomed Mariano's decision.
"I'm glad the county did the right thing, said Christie Zimmer of Land O' Lakes. "That shouldn't be the burden over every constituent.''
"I have mixed feelings. I would love it to happen for the people who are over there, but I don't think it's fairly appropriated,'' said David Hipps, owner of Land O' Lakes Marine on U.S. 41.
The measure faced a tough sell on the dais as well. Commissioners Mike Moore and Mike Wells Jr. both expressed reluctance. Wells suggested any fee increase money should go to boat ramps, not dredging. Moore questioned the benefit to boaters living away from the coast.
Commissioner Kathryn Starkey expressed initial support for the idea, but later backtracked.
"I do think that dredging the coastline here is important for the county,'' Starkey told the Tampa Bay Times in October. "I think people from all over use the boat ramps to put their boats in the water, and having channels that are navigable benefits the whole county.''
But she sent an email to a Times reporter earlier this month after the newspaper published an online account of the June 4 commission debate.
"I am not in favor of lake boaters paying a fee,'' she said.
Likewise, Pasco Tax Collector Mike Fasano said via Twitter that the commission needed to state clearly who was responsible for the higher fee.
"Our office will collect whatever fee the Pasco Commissioners decide. We only ask they make it clear that they decided to impose the 50 percent rate hike and NOT the Pasco Tax Collector office. It will be our phones that will ring off the hook, not theirs,'' he tweeted.
The state 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 the optional fee. Thirteen Florida counties, including neighboring Hillsborough, Pinellas and Polk, charge the local fee.
Initially, legislators believed Pasco County needed state permission to use the proceeds for dredging. During her re-election campaign last year, Commissioner Mariano's daughter, Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson, said getting that approval would be her top legislative priority for 2019. Later, state lawyers said the county didn't need the state's blessing to raise the fee for dredging costs.
The debate surfaced because 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, commissioners agreed to schedule a public session with boaters, property owners and others to brainstorm ideas on how to advance the dredging proposals.
Contact C.T. Bowen at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2.