• Tue. Sep 20th, 2022

Pasco first responders make financial proposals to county commission

ByChad J. Johnson

Apr 9, 2022

DADE CITY — Local firefighters weren’t faring well this week as they explained to county commissioners what’s at stake if they don’t see more money in the coming months.

Last year, in more than 41,000 calls, it took Pasco Fire and Rescue more than 10 minutes to arrive at an emergency, a response time that fell short of industry standards, said Robert Fuerst, representing the Pasco Professional Firefighters Union. It put lives and property at risk, he said.

From Jan. 1 through mid-March, the county’s fire and rescue department logged the equivalent of 1,586 minutes with a “Signal 40,” meaning the county had no ambulances available to take a call.

The promised new fire stations and additional ambulances are still not online yet, he said.

“We need this council to be the public safety advocates they claim to be and provide the funding we desperately need,” Fuerst said. “Only then will Pasco have a chance to be a top county.”

With that call, the annual showdown for taxpayers’ money began in earnest as commissioners gathered to begin discussing their budget priorities.

Sheriff Chris Nocco issued his own warning to the commissioners.

He repeated the message he gave them during a workshop to prepare for the new Penny for Pasco campaign last week. Its number of deputies is well below the population-based average compared to other counties in Florida, he said. And with Pasco growing as fast as it is, it needs two new deputies for every 1,000 new residents moving into the county.

Nocco had previously suggested at that workshop that his office get a bigger slice of the sales tax pie in the next round, if voters approve. He urged the commission to commit to taking nothing from its current $111 million budget for law enforcement.

“We are going to fall behind,” he said. New residents “will want to get the service or they’ll get really mad and start pointing fingers.”

As each year in growing counties like Pasco, with home values ​​rising and hopes for another year of double-digit property tax revenue increases, the cash rush of this year has reached a new level with a few twists.

One is Nocco’s decision to turn prison operations over to the county on Oct. 1, at the start of the new fiscal year. This transition, which was forced on some county officials last week, has profound financial implications and is something county officials are still trying to get a handle on.

The other is the Penny for Pasco campaign prep work, which voters will consider later this year. This time, the additional tax, which would come into effect in 2024 when the current tax expires, would last for 15 years and bring an estimate. $1.9 billion in county coffers.

In the last 20 years of Pasco’s Supplemental Sales Tax, 45% of the money was distributed to schools, 45% to the county, and 10% to towns in Pasco. But Nocco’s arguments, and the impassioned pleas of longtime penny tax advocates not to steal one part of the revenue to pay more to another, show real concerns about how the commissioners might prioritize the spending this time.

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On Tuesday, several members of the team that has already presented the sales tax to voters urged the commissioners to set aside the current spending mix. Nocco was not seeking more funding for his office from schools or cities, a spokeswoman told the Tampa Bay Weather Last week. He wants the extra money taken from the county portion.

Transportation gets 40 percent of the county’s allotment with economic development, public safety, and parks and ecologically sensitive land each getting 20 percent.

For Richard Riley, maintaining environmental resources as part of this mix ensures the quality of life Pasco residents seek.

“Don’t mess with the tried-and-true formula,” said Jennifer Seney, who has been involved in the Penny Sales Tax since its inception. “You run the risk of sinking that penny.”

While public safety agencies will always need more money, she said, environmental groups have fought to make sure sensitive lands are included in the campaign. This mix of different interests, from economic development to saving special open spaces, was the “synergy” that allowed the tax rate to pass twice before, Seney said.

Commissioners will discuss sales tax priorities over the coming months as well as other budget issues. The move from jail to sheriff’s county is already at the top of the discussion list.

Pasco Courts Clerk Nikki Alvarez-Sowles told commissioners she only learned of the change last week, when Nocco announced the change in prison workers in a video. For Alvarez-Sowles, the change will have a big impact on her finance department and, with her budget proposal due to the county on May 1, she worries about having enough time to do everything she needs to do before the change.

An important task needed as soon as possible is to hire an auditor to perform a transition audit. Alvarez-Sowles said it was necessary to ensure the county knew everything it was getting from the sheriff before the actual transition took place.

County Administrator Dan Biles said the county still needs to iron out many details, including how it will share future growth in new property tax revenue with Nocco once the county runs the jail. In the past, Nocco received 50% of this new money.

Biles said he is planning a budget workshop with the county commission on May 24.