Pasco BOCC increases gas tax

Photo courtesy of Tampa Bay Times

Photo courtesy of Tampa Bay Times

Pasco commissioners on [September 9th] approved increasing the county’s gas tax to 12 cents a gallon – highest in the Tampa Bay area. The 5-cent-per-gallon hike puts Pasco’s gasoline tax at the most allowed under state law and 5 cents higher than in both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties and 3 cents higher than in Hernando. County Commissioners, who didn’t relish passing the increase, found themselves at a crossroads after a recent spate of new construction and years of budget cuts.

Presented with a proposed budget on July 8, they agreed to spend $8 million more on road construction. Only they weren’t sure how to fund the increase, through higher property taxes or more gas taxes. County staff prepared a budget with four contingencies – a 5-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase, an $8 million property tax increase, a combination of the two, or no increase.

Facing a similar dilemma last year, when more than 100 gas tax opponents packed into the meeting chambers, commissioners backed away from raising the gas tax. This time around, with fewer opponents in attendance, commissioners argued the increase would prove less painful than the other options before them.

An analysis by county staff boiled down to this:

Raising the gas tax 5 cents a gallon would force small businesses to pay another $250 yearly, based on a five-vehicle fleet. Increasing property taxes by $8 million would have forced them to pay an extra $478 annually. Homeowners, meanwhile, would have been saddled with another $19.92 annually on average under the property tax scenario and $37.50 under the gas tax plan.

“I had to think about what was best for the whole county,” said Commissioner Henry Wilson, who last year cast the pivotal vote against the gas tax. This year, Wilson is a lame duck; he lost his re-election bid in August. The measure required four of five commissioners’ support.

Commission Chairman Jack Mariano, the lone dissenter, remained unswayed by arguments that higher property taxes would hurt small businesses more than higher gas taxes, which are spread across the county to all motorists, including visitors and regardless of whether they own property.

Commissioners could have settled on a combination of smaller increases to the two gas tax and property taxes but in the end felt that the gas tax option was less onerous for businesses. “We need to find a balance between taxation and level of services,” Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said. “I feel our responsibility is to fund and maintain our local roads.”

“To me, this is a more conservative route,” Commissioner Pat Mulieri said. “It’s a no-brainer.” Of course, not everyone agreed. Daniel Hamm, representing the Pasco Republican Party, said the party is against increasing any taxes, and he objected to the hearing being held during the day instead of at night, when more people could attend.

Many others, however, including Jennifer Doerfel of the Tampa Bay Builders Association, spoke in favor of raising the gas tax, noting that without some kind of increase, mobility fees may have to rise, which could have a chilling effect on growth.

John Hagen, Director of the Pasco Economic Development Council, agreed, arguing that without some increase in road construction, Pasco will fall behind other counties, which could hurt efforts to attract employers.

“When you look at what are the major criteria used to pick a site for a new factory or a new office building, invariably and always highway accessibility is at the top of the list,” he said. “Being premier means making tough decisions.”

Article courtesy of Rich Shopes, © Tampa Bay Times