Pasco County Commissioner Henry Wilson traveled out of his district and met with business owners and community leaders of Zephyrhills at the Microtel Inn & Suites by Wyndham last week on a mission to find out what Pasco County is doing right and what it is doing wrong.
Wilson's District 4 is located in the western portion of the county, but commissioners are voted in by all county residents, Wilson said. This was the third of five meetings organized through local chambers of commerce. Prior to Zephyrhills, Wilson met with central Pasco and Dade City. After Zephyrhills he meets with west Pasco and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Wilson told the 14 people in attendance, including Zephyrhills Mayor Danny Burgess, former mayor Cliff McDuffie and Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Vonnie Mikkelsen that he wanted to hear first-hand from county business people.
"I can hear from staff all day long but unless I hear from you directly, I can't close the loop," he said.
Wilson fielded complaints and encouragements, keeping notes on issues as they came up and making comments on county procedures that were not always complimentary.
"The county is going through some changes these days," he said, "some good, some bad."
One of the good changes he pointed out was the hiring of a new county administrator. He was pleased with the choice of Irving, Texas, city manager Tommy Gonzalez because he wanted someone who had been in charge of multiple levels of government in an area with a large population. The county is expected to grow from about 460,000 people to three-quarters of a million people by 2025, Wilson said.
The meeting came on the heels of a county commission meeting where Pasco municipalities banded together to oppose a change in the way local option gas tax funds would be distributed. The change would take more than $700,000 from municipal budgets. The cities claimed that county staff did not give the commission accurate information with which to make a decision. The commission decided to put the change off for a year.
Wilson said he must have received 50 emails on the subject
"Staff did not do a good job of working together yesterday," he said. "We need to be able to work together."
Burgess thanked the commissioners later in the meeting for granting the extension, saying it gives municipalities time to work with the county toward a mutually agreeable solution.
Rental property owners John and Diana McDiarmid complained about permit issues and "redundant" practices by county staff.
Wilson said sometimes permitting issues were staff problems. "We still have people that are set in their ways," he said.
Permitting issues as well as other issues are a result of the county being too paper-oriented and not embracing technology, Wilson said.
"We are in the 18th century at the county," he said. "We still have people using manual typewriters. Technology has not been embraced because the administration did not want to embrace it." He said they are procuring new technologies that he hopes will speed things up.
McDuffie asked why former county administrator John Gallagher was tolerated when the county was years behind in technology.
"Want me to be honest with you?" Wilson said. "He had the three votes to keep his job."
Wilson said the county budgeting process should be "interesting" this year since the commission expected a 2 percent to 4 percent increase in property values, but the actual increase was 0.24 percent. The small increase he said was due to foreclosures and short sales.
Wilson spoke to the balance of votes on the commission again when talking about recycling in Pasco County. "Recycling in the county is "abominable," he said. "There is not mandatory recycling and there is not mandatory garbage pick-up because there are not three votes for it."
According to Pasco Recycling statistics, 24 percent of those eligible recycle. Wilson said that he sought to franchise the trash pick-up in order to help increase recycling but trash haulers were against it. Wilson challenged them to come up with a method to encourage people to recycle and they proposed a permanent recycling sticker that allows people to designate their own container for recycling rather than having to buy and use blue bags. Wilson told haulers that if this doesn't work they will have to talk about franchising trash pick-up, he said.
Mikkelson and McDuffie challenged Wilson with what Mikkelsen called "a perception gap" concerning Zephyrhills. "The real assets of Zephyrhills are not known," she said. "As a result, the community is overlooked. I don't believe that's acceptable."
McDuffie agreed. He said that West Pasco people think that East Pasco people are all farmers. "You need to get off your chairs out there and come over here," he said. "We elect all of you so you should all know what's going on in the whole county. We constantly are fighting to get people over here to look at what we've got."
Fifth Avenue business owner Rose Hale echoed their opinions. "Perception has to change to work as a team," she said.
For a long time, Zephyrhills was known as "God's Waiting Room," Wilson said. He predicted that with the changes at the upper levels of county administration that thought patterns would change.
"Zephyrhills is an integral part of the county and should not be a second thought," he said.