Pasco clerk

Pasco County Clerk and Comptroller Nikki Alvarez-Sowles

DADE CITY — Pasco County Clerk and Comptroller Nikki Alvarez-Sowles knows time is running out to get her office adequately funded in this fiscal year, but her definition of adequate and county officials’ definition appear to differ.

“I don’t think it’s adequate what they are proposing to give to my office, which sounds like it’s a done deal,” she said after the Sept. 15 County Commission meeting. “And I think I have expressed my discontent with it and provided a support in Florida law for it.”

She had made a budget request of almost $13.3 million for fiscal 2022, according to budget documents, but of the nearly $9 million increase she asked for, the county only budgeted about $1 million more for some salary and IT expenses, for which she sought about $1.7 million.

“It’s a done deal,” she said. “What they’re going to put in for my budget is what they’re going to put in for my budget. And they’re not changing because I heard it loud and clear.”

Commission Chairman Ron Oakley said he agreed to move forward with what County Administrator Dan Biles had suggested, taking two to three years to fulfill the clerk’s needs.

“We’ll do 40% of it this year, and it may end up just two years instead of three,” he said, referring to the $1.7 million increase.

Alvarez-Sowles gave a long presentation at the meeting, detailing her past efforts to deal with less staff and some technologically backward computer systems — some dating to the 1970s — that needed to be upgraded not only to meet new needs but because the staffers with the skills to run mainframe computers and software from that era were retiring.

Commissioner Kathryn Starkey reminded her that a few years earlier, the sheriff had asked for salary increases. They didn’t do it in one year, Starkey said, but phased it in over three years.

“I just want to be treated equally with other (constitutional officers),” she said during her presentation.

Alvarez-Sowles noted that she has open positions, but the starting salary is too low to attract many people.

“I don’t want to sue the county, but I do believe the law is in my favor, and I just want to do the right thing for the taxpayers of Pasco County, for my team,” she said outside the commission chambers. “They both deserve the best, and I need the funding to be able to provide that.”

The remainder of her request — roughly $8 million — is where Alvarez-Sowles and county leaders disagree. She contends the request, which will be discussed later, according to budget documents, is needed to fund service expenses for the West Pasco Judicial Center courthouse annex in New Port Richey, and state law requires that the county fund it.

According to county spokesman Ryan Hughes, “The County Attorney has stated it is not the county’s obligation to fund the operation of the New Port Richey Courthouse; it’s the state’s responsibility. Therefore, the Board did not fund that portion of the Clerk’s request.”

Budget matters

Commissioners on Sept. 15 approved 5-0 a proposed millage rate of 9.3482 for the 2022 fiscal year, a 1.49% increase over the rolled-back rate, which is the rate that would generate the same revenue as the previous year.

The General Operating Fund levy is 7.6076 mills, according to agenda documents, 3.82% above the rolled back rate.

One mill is equal to $1 for every $1,000 of assessed property value.

The county saw a 10.8% increase in taxable value, said budget director Robert Goehrig.

Commissioners approved a budget of $1.735 billion net of interfund transfers at the same meeting, an increase of about $106 million over last year.

The budget increase, Goehrig said, included an accounting of the “American Rescue Plan” contribution, reaching a recommended reserve level of 16.7% of budgeted expenditures, fully funding the Sheriff’s Office budget request, a pay increase for board and constitutional officers, opening two new fire stations, adding a second rescue unit at Station 30, adding a veterans service officer, and adding additional personnel in the planning and zoning department to address the increase in workload.

The board approved the budget 5-0.

The next budget meeting will be held Sept. 28 in New Port Richey.

Road worriers

Residents of the Hudson area drove out to Dade City to tell commissioners that their roads are flooded, that Filly Lane was under 2 feet of water and some people can’t even leave their driveways when the water is too high. They said they keep asking for help and keep getting excuses.

Commissioner Jack Mariano said it’s an issue that needs to be worked on, and that the solution will be to raise the road a couple of feet.

According to a recent story by National Public Radio, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has been selling houses in floodplains, and one of the biggest areas for those sales is the greater Tampa Bay region. According to the report, the agency is supposed to but often doesn’t tell people that a house is in a flood zone, so buyers don’t know the risks they are taking as well as that they might have to evacuate if a hurricane hits.

“In recent weeks, reporters from WUSF and WLRN checked on dozens of the homes in South Florida and the Tampa Bay region. Visits in coastal Pasco and Pinellas counties found streets in front of several homes with standing water — even though it hadn't rained that day,” NPR reported. “In coastal Pasco County, many of the homes were located on the west side of U.S. 19, which already is in a flood zone and among the first places in the region to be evacuated during storms.”

In other action

• Commissioners heard from residents about the possibility of park land in their community being turned into housing and demanded that they not allow that to happen due to concerns about traffic, crime and natural preservation. Community members in the area east of Little Road near Amazon Drive said they were behind a Municipal Services Benefit Unit assessment for the park that had been approved years ago after a developer tried to build an apartment complex called The Oaks on the 41-acre site, according to news stories in the Tampa Bay Times in 2013. The county had bought the land for $3 million. The MSBU money never was collected, and residents of the subdivisions in the area said they were worried because the property still is zoned for residential use.

Biles said they are working on options for various levels of a park from a cost perspective. Moore said the commission should wait until it has a meeting in New Port Richey so more people from the area could attend, and commissioners voted 5-0 to put on the agenda for the next meeting a measure ordering the tax collector and property appraiser to put the MSBU taxes of $138 per household on the 2023 tax bills.

• Commissioners saw a presentation on the 2022 Strategic Plan Adoption for Organizational Performance Management. The program is looking at how the county does business and how to serve the residents better to create a better future. One of the goals is to address the flooding issues.

• Sam Beneck was honored for being Florida Bicycle Association Professional of the Year for 2020.

• Without any public comment or objection, the commissioners approved 5-0 special assessment liens for 11 paving projects.

• Commissioners approved 4-1 a zoning amendment to a Master Planned Unit Development District to allow for a maximum of 400 multifamily apartment units on the Horner property. “It was in the moratorium area,” said Commissioner Mike Moore, “but it was submitted before the moratorium.” Moore, who represents District 2, where the property is located, observed that no one came out to speak. “If you don’t come to speak, you don’t tell us what you want,” he said. Moore was the dissenting vote.

This story has been changed to correct an inaccurate report of an exchange between the clerk and the county commission.