NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco officials hope bond ballot questions pass on Election Day, with voters approving funding for improvements to the county’s libraries, its firefighting buildings, its jail and its parks system.
The four-part financing question will appear at the end of Pasco County ballots issued in the election — on absentee, early voting and Election Day ballots. Some of those ballots have already made their way into the hands of voters. Election Day is Nov. 6.
At stake are improvements and expansions that officials said need to be made as the Pasco County population grows and demands better services. The Pasco County population — about 465,000 during the 2010 census — has already hit 512,000, according to Pasco County spokeswoman Tambrey Laine. That’s a 10.1 percent increase in under a decade. By 2040, the population is expected to hit 916,000, said Laine.
It puts Pasco County government under stress, and, officials add, maintenance on county properties has suffered.
Being a large county also stresses the county government, because people are dependent upon it. Many government services fall upon Pasco County government, not cities, as 91 percent of the county is unincorporated. Only a small percent of the Pasco population are residents of the county’s six incorporated municipalities.
“We’re a very unique county in that regard,” said Pasco Commissioner Jack Mariano, speaking to the Suncoast News on Oct. 10.
The general obligation bonds will raise $30.54 per $100,000 taxable value of Pasco’s homes. But the improvements will be phased in over 30 years.
To answer questions, county officials kicked off their question-and-answer sessions on Oct. 8, at the West Pasco Government Center in New Port Richey. The sessions and the website the county launched are meant to educate voters on the proposed bond issue, not convince them to approve it, Laine has stressed during the run-up to the vote.
While officials noted the bonds come with a cost, they will also help Pasco County save money. Pasco County spends $2 million a year sending inmates to the Hernando County jail, according to the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.
That’s $2 million in revenue the county cannot use to fix up the jail. Pasco officials want to renovate and expand the jail complex just south of the intersection of State Road 52 and U.S. 41 to keep inmates inside the growing county.
The number of inmates, and expense, sent to Hernando County will only increase if changes are not made, officials told a small audience of about 50 people on Oct. 8.
“We’re here to keep Pasco money in Pasco,” said Chase Daniels, assistant executive director of the Pasco Sheriff’s Office, speaking to the audience.
Earlier this year, the Sheriff’s Office was under a judicial order to relieve overcrowding at the county jail complex on U.S. 41 south of State Road 52 once the inmate population reached 1,900.
Pasco County officials are asking for up to $132 million for the jail bond.
Pasco Fire Rescue is asking for up to $70.2 million for improvements and renovations. Scott Cassin, Pasco fire chief, said its training center is too small for the number of employees the department has. Further, fire and rescue calls are increasing. Pasco Fire Rescue received 265 calls on a peak day Jan. 22. On an annual basis, Fire Rescue received about 57,000 calls in 2013, which went up to 71,000 by 2017. Pasco Fire Rescue has 26 stations in 23 districts.
The park system is asking for $20.2 million. Parks and libraries had been particularly hard hit by the recession, according to Commissioner Kathryn Starkey. During the Great Recession of 2008-2009, which hit Florida very hard and caused a major drop in government tax and fee revenue, Pasco officials slashed the budget of parks by about 30 percent. That led to a backlog of maintenance that still plagues the county today.
And other funding options couldn’t be used, as impact fees, for example, cannot be budgeted for deferred maintenance, officials told the audience.
Thus, the budget crunch put maintenance off for a time at the county’s boardwalks, observation towers and more. One county official recounted at Monday’s meeting how a park user recently had to use a wooden board to turn the lights on and off at a ballpark at Land O’ Lakes, to ensure he was not shocked by the aging switch.
Pasco’s library officials want $18.6 million for modernization of its facilities. The county libraries have not had major work done in 30 years, according to Starkey.
Pasco County, situated above Pinellas County, has long been a magnet for population growth with its coastal appeal and proximity to jobs, attractions and beaches in the Clearwater-St. Petersburg-Tampa metro area.
In 1980, the Pasco population stood at near 194,000. By 2000, it was nearing 350,000 and is now well over 500,000.