NEW PORT RICHEY - If Pasco commissioners are looking for public approval before they vote to raise the county's gas tax to the maximum allowed by law, they won't get it from the county's annual citizen survey.
Commissioners have relied on feedback from the citizen surveys to justify implementing parking fees and raising recreation fees to pay for programs in the Parks Department rather than relying solely on property taxes. So this year they added a lengthy question about how to pay for road maintenance costs.
Respondents were given three options: 1) raise the gas tax a nickel, to 12-cents per gallon, 2) levy a Road & Bridge property tax, or 3) do nothing.
Craig McCandless, the county's customer service administrator, said more than 1,750 people took the online survey this year, and they voiced more support for the property tax (59 percent) than the gas tax (49 percent.) Only 24 percent of online respondents recommended no increased funding for roads.
McCandless said the online responses are not statistically valid. That's why the county mails the survey every year to 1,200 randomly selected households. This year 243 people returned the survey, giving it a margin of error of plus or minus 6 percentage points.
Their responses indicated even less support (41 percent) for the higher gas tax, while half said they would support the higher property tax. The percentage who supported neither option was virtually identical to the online results.
County Administrator Michele Baker said the surveys send a clear message that doing nothing is not an option. "What I take from it is strong direction that 74 percent of the population think we have to do something," she said.
Baker noted that respondents ranked county infrastructure, roads and traffic as one of the three top priorities for the next year - higher than job creation or public safety - even if they don't agree on how to pay for it.
"That's common," Baker said. "People want service, and nobody wants to have their taxes raised to pay for it. What this means to the board is that we still have to address the problem."
Commissioners are scheduled to set next year's millage rate Tuesday. Baker said that including a road and bridge levy in the millage rate would raise it to the point it could only be adopted by a unanimous vote.
"That's another reason to go with the gas tax," she said.
The current gas tax for unleaded fuel - federal, state and local - adds up to 48.9 cents a gallon. The extra five cents would generate $5.9 million in 2014 to pay for road paving and maintenance.
Pasco Republican Party Chairman Jim Mathieu has called on party members to attend the meeting to speak out against the higher gas tax.
"I understand that if you don't pass a gas tax, they're threatening a higher millage rate," he said. "But once you pass it, it will be a one-way trip. That's my biggest objection."
A property tax rate for roads and bridges, on the other hand, would be considered and voted on every year. "The other question is, do we need the money?" Mathieu asked. "There's an infinite amount of needs for the county. Do I think the county is adequately maintaining the roads now? Yes. Could they be better? Yes. So could our parks and other county services."
Commission Chairman Ted Schrader said he's received between 20 and 30 emails - all opposing the gas tax increase - since Mathieu began sending out email blasts on the subject.
"It's unfortunate they don't reach out to the county officials to get all the information before they pass judgment," Schrader said. "You know, the Republican Party was opposed to the original Penny For Pasco, too, and they fought really hard to defeat it."