For the first time in two decades, Pat Mulieri’s name will not be on the ballot for District 2 Pasco County commissioner. Republicans Ken Littlefield, Mike Moore and Bob Robertson face off in the Aug. 26 primary.
Early voting begins Saturday and continues through Aug. 23. The winner will compete against Democrat Erika Remsberg in November.
The Pasco Tribune asked the candidates a series of questions on topics ranging from economic development to transportation. Here are their responses: Q. The Board of Commissioners will be voting on a new Long Range Transportation Plan (Mobility 2040) later this year. Would you support a plan that included some form of elevated lanes on the State Road 54/56 corridor? If not, what is your preferred alternative to provide future traffic relief?
Littlefield: I would support widening the S R 54/56 corridor to eight lanes with additional plans for overpasses and ramps at major intersections like the one over Interstate 75. I do not support elevated lanes other than overpasses.
Widen U S 41 north to S R 52; widen S R 52 from the Suncoast Parkway to I 75; extend Ridge Road to I 75.
Moore: We don’t want to be behind the curve but we need to be very thoughtful on how we plan for the future. With plans already in place to widen 54 and 52, between 41 and the Suncoast in addition to 56 being extended to 301, there is some additional relief on the way that we can look forward to.
I was against the proposed elevated toll road. It’s very important to me that the community has a say in how we move forward so I will reach out to the community and I will ask their opinion on any recommendations that are made.
Remsberg: Federal and state funding has declined to inadequate levels nationwide. This along with taxing limits by states has forced counties to consider options perhaps not ideal for local residents but seemingly the only option including managed toll lanes privately operated. If elected I will consider all options by researching best practices, reviewing data, consulting experts and advocating for adequate funding though I do not see myself supporting managed/toll lanes. To address congestion at specific intersections overpasses may be a good option. Other options to be explored include widening of roads, expanding/completing current roads (Tower and Sunlake for example) to open additional route options. Certainly this should be planned out prior to the completion of approved development projects.
Robertson: I was the first of the three candidates to publicly oppose the initial proposal. I would continue to oppose an elevated roadway, unless a serious study, with a favorable outcome, was done on the impact to businesses and property owners along that corridor. For this solution to move forward it would be critical to have the support of the community. As a first step in solving the transportation needs of this part of the county, I would like to explore High Occupancy Vehicle Lanes (HOV), that could be shared with the Pasco County Public Transportation System. As we expand our east / west (on SR 54) service we should pursue how we may connect with Hillsborough’s HART system to provide options into Tampa.
Q. Over the next 10 years, Pasco County expects to collect around $45 million from the Penny for Pasco sales tax for an economic development trust fund. How should this money be allocated?
Littlefield: Redevelopment of U S 19; Increase the incentive fund to lure a large employer to locate in Pasco; Develop an industrial park; Increase marketing budget to include and increase international awareness.
Moore: We need higher paying jobs in Pasco County and we need them now. For far too long, many residents of our county have traveled every morning to their job somewhere else, only to make a long commute home in the evening. In addition, some of our best and brightest do not come back to Pasco County after graduating from college because the jobs are not here. If we want to be a “premier county” we need to keep them here. By bringing secure, higher paying jobs to our community, we will have a strong economic foundation to grow and prosper, right here. We will then be able to have the resources to maintain and expand our roads, maintain our parks properly, keep our libraries open and provide the resources our sheriff’s department and fire rescue need to make sure our citizens are safe and secure. Some ways I’d like to see the money allocated:
1. Marketing and branding: I’d focus on attracting companies from outside of Florida that are looking to relocate to a more tax-friendly state. To do that we need to have a solid marketing plan in place. This can include having a presence at some of the major manufacturing, financial, high tech and biotech conferences. Advertising Pasco County as the ideal location to relocate to in major trade magazines read by company CEOs and CFOs. Also, the development and printing of materials for direct marketing.
2. A business park: Class A office space. We have a lack of class A office space so we are losing those companies to Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. In addition, it will allow Pasco to keep its current employers in the county once they are ready to expand or move to a higher quality space.
Industrial Park: I’d like to see a private public partnership and develop an industrial park. Surrounding counties already have the infrastructure in place to attract more business and it’s something we lack. Next time an Amazon comes calling we will be ready for them.
3. Incentive fund: We need to be able to offer the right incentives to help attract companies considering relocating or expanding their operations to Pasco. Boosting the incentive fund could do wonders for us.
Remsberg: I agree with the original plan areas identified for Penny for Pasco and the Renewal funds plan. How those funds will be used in each area to achieve goals is key and should be completely vetted. I believe the transportation funding should be used for paving, repair and public transportation in that order. I am very concerned with paving assessments pricing homeowners out of their homes. As we grow into a denser more urban county our tax structure should also change so that we not only welcome new development but also continue to have a place for our long-term residents. Regarding socioeconomic development we should follow the Urban Land Institute recommendations to support existing businesses to grow and expand work force development/training initiatives so that we grow a workforce beyond central Pasco. I believe we will attract larger businesses if we have a consistent stream of qualified workers and adequate public transportation.
Robertson: First, I think that the occupancy of Compark 75 should be watched closely. As prospective occupants are brought to Pasco County we need to pay close attention to the needs that they have. If those needs cannot be met there, then we need to consider where else in the county that we can build class A office / industrial space. As you note in the question, the $45 million is actually $4 ½ million per year for 10 years. I would support the Pasco Economic Development Council’s suggestion that we look at advancing some of those funds so that we can begin considering other projects now – because we need the jobs now. Whether it’s redevelopment along U.S. 19 or a different type of class A facility somewhere else in the county, we have to allow the need/demand to point us in the right direction.
Q. The state has appropriated $10 million in seed money for a new Performing Arts/Convention Center in Wesley Chapel, a joint project between Pasco-Hernando State College, the school district and the county. What role should county government play, both financially and administratively, in this project?
Littlefield: This is another area that the economic development trust fund could be used. I would be in favor of a combined board made up of representatives from PHSC, the school district and the county to administer the project.
Moore: I would prefer Pasco-Hernando State College take on the administration of the facility. It only makes sense given their proximately to the proposed facility and the availability of student employees and interns which will equate to huge savings in the cost of managing the facility.
The PEDC has suggested allocating some economic development trust fund dollars to the construction of a convention center. With easy access to I-75 and I-275 this could be the perfect scenario and is worth investigating further.
Remsberg: I am in favor of pursuing arts and culture here in Pasco as I feel this is an area we are sorely lacking in. If this comes to fruition we will have a center to market conventions and certainly our graduating high school seniors would not have to leave our county for graduation ceremonies, as is the case now. I am interested in learning more about the revenue sources planned for this project. This is a large capital project that will require a significant investment both in the short and long-term.
Robertson: I agree with Speaker [Will] Weatherford that this center will be a wonderful asset to Pasco County. I believe that PHSC should take the lead in making sure that this center is built and where it should be built. Pasco County government will have a role to play, but to expect a significant contribution from the taxpayers seems unrealistic to me at this point.
Q. Do you support the current proposal to build a criminal courthouse in front of the jail in Land O’ Lakes?
Littlefield: Yes I do support the concept but would only be willing to move ahead with
the project after a full vetting and public support of the funding mechanism.
Moore: Currently that proposal is on hold. It could be a convenient option for many in the future but there are hurdles to overcome before it can become a reality. Funding the facility is the number one obstacle at this time.
Remsberg: Yes, we have the jail here in Central Pasco, paying to transport inmates over 20 miles each way is expensive and staff intensive. In addition, all civil, criminal, family court and traffic matters have to be addressed on one side of the county or other. I would want to see data for this project, but we have grown significantly here in Central Pasco, so it is likely time for a courthouse
Robertson: Yes, I do. As a result of participating in the Citizens Academy, I learned what a logistics challenge we have with our current system. When individuals in the jail are required to appear in court, they are awakened at 4 in the morning to allow time for preparation. This creates potential disruption to the management of the jail. The costs and the security risks to then transport these individuals is significant. One important consideration of this move will be to provide additional transit service to and from the courthouse for the citizens from various parts of the county that will require transportation service.
Q. Do you think county commissioners have supported the SunWest Park project? Do you think they should spend the rest of the available tourism capital dollars to expedite construction of the park’s Phase 2 amenities (splash pad, parking and restrooms) now?
Littlefield: They have supported it, although reluctantly by some. I do think that they should go ahead and fund the additional amenities. The tourism capital dollars will be replenished.
Moore: I’m excited that SunWest Park is moving forward. It’s going to be a beautiful park and it will definitely give an economic boost to west Pasco and the [U.S.] 19 corridor. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting the site on numerous occasions and can say that an additional bathroom is definitely needed. One thousand feet to walk to the bathroom is an inconvenience and a potential health hazard. Other parks around the county have multiple bathroom facilities close to the activities.
Remsberg: It is my understanding this project was funded to support a public park. That means there must be public access to this park and not a fee based amusement park. I think there is public confusion regarding the funding and intent for SunWest. If there is desire to incorporate tourism dollars in this project, perhaps that can be explored and I can certainly understand why the folks on the West end would want parity relative to tourism funding. That being said I am concerned how projects are handled and communicated to the public. Public-private partnerships can be positive for communities but should not be negotiated in phases with open-ended budgets and hopes that additional funding will be made available at a later date.
Robertson: There is no question, yes, the commissioners have supported the SunWest Park project. Have they supported it to the degree that some residents would prefer – probably not. This is a classic case of you can’t make everyone happy. SunWest Park is going to be a fantastic asset to Pasco County. There is also no question that there is going to have to be some interim solution to this bathroom issue. Five hundred yards is too far to expect folks, especially youngsters, to walk to use the facilities. I believe that holding off on spending the rest of the tourism dollars is the right decision – for now.
Q. Has the county commission treated all areas of Pasco County fairly when it comes to services and capital spending? In other words, are east Pasco and west Pasco getting their fair share?
Littlefield: I don’t know if it’s a matter of getting their fair share. What benefits one part of Pasco should be seen as benefiting the entire county. I am sure there are some who feel they have been unfairly treated but if we can see ourselves as one county rather than five districts and rid ourselves of the parochialism we will all benefit.
Moore: I’m running to bring a brighter future to all of Pasco County. Certain areas of the county have different needs than others. I’m committed to ensuring the priority items of each community are met.
Remsberg: Certainly we have had success in some areas of Pasco and now we can turn our attention to other areas needing development and revitalization like Lacoochee and the U.S. 19 corridor. Poverty ranges from 5-33% in Pasco with central having the lowest percentage and the wings of our county the highest; clearly we need to shift our focus to the areas in most need. Public transportation on the East end must be increased. I rode the public bus to learn first hand how challenging it is for our lower income residents and seniors who no longer drive to get around in East Pasco. I met families who rely on the Family Dollar store for groceries and people who have to take half a day off of their minimum wage job to get to a medical appointment less than 10 miles away due to route/time limits.
Robertson: For any parent that has more than one child, one of the first things you learn is that treating them fairly doesn’t necessarily mean treating them equally. There are a lot of challenges facing this county. From the economic issues in the U.S. 19 corridor to those in Lacoochee, from the transportation issues along 54/56 to those on 301 in Zephyrhills, from the road expansion plans on Ridge Road to those along the Overpass Road area – there really isn’t an area of the county that is being ignored.
Q. If commissioners approve the proposed 2015 budget, it means the Sheriff’s Department budget will have grown nearly 18% in the last four years. Is that rate of spending for law enforcement sustainable? If not, what do you suggest?
Littlefield: This is why we craft a budget every year. The process provides an annual assessment of requests and available revenue to fund those requests. It becomes the commission’s responsibility to determine whether we can afford the requests or not. It is evident that the present sheriff is a good negotiator. I think he is surprised at times that he gets all he asks for. This year the commission says we can afford it. They will have the chance to make that decision again next year.
Moore: One thing I consistently hear from residents is that they want to feel safe and secure. The most recent citizen’s survey backs that up. Residents stated on the survey that they want the county to make Pasco County safer. I will continue to listen to the taxpayers and make public safety a top priority while in office.
Remsberg: It is my position we must have adequate staffing levels and competitive salaries for our public safety departments to maximize safety of both residents and deputies. Staffing levels in our public safety departments are lower than recommended. That puts the public and officers at an increased risk for harm. We should increase staff and pay competitive wages so we do not expend money training deputies only to lose them to neighboring counties.
Robertson: Obviously, that rate of growth is not sustainable. However it’s important to realize that it won’t have to be. This and the last few budgets have had an element of “making up for lost time”. If we expect to have a premier and safe county to live in we simply cannot continue to train deputies to have them recruited away with higher salaries and signing bonuses.