DADE CITY — The Pasco county commissioner who held the deciding vote on whether to raise the county’s proposed gas tax said it would take something extraordinary to convince him to support the higher tax.
Commissioner Henry Wilson wasn’t convinced. Tuesday night, he helped defeat the proposal to add a nickel to the cost of each gallon of unleaded fuel sold in the county.
“Now is not the time,” he said, ignoring pleas from Commissioners Kathryn Starkey and Pat Mulieri to compromise.
Instead of 5 cents, they offered a 3-cent gas tax increase that would end in 10 years. Then they offered to end the tax in five years. Wilson and Commissioner Jack Mariano voted against both motions. Chairman Ted Schrader supported both compromise options, but any increase to the gas tax required approval from four of the five commissioners.
It was a huge defeat for new County Administrator Michele Baker, who spent the last seven months lobbying for the higher gas tax. Now she must regroup and shuffle the county budget to keep up with road repairs.
The current gas tax for unleaded fuel - federal, state and local - adds up to 48.9 cents a gallon. Each new penny would have generated about $1.5 million for road paving and maintenance.
“We need to be leaders here,” Starkey said. “It’s our collective responsibility to take care of our roads. For a person who drives 12,000 miles a year, we’re talking about $25. I think that’s a good investment. It’s a lot less than the cost of a front-end alignment or replacing a flat tire.”
Wilson pointed to the cross-section of residents who stayed for the 4-hour public hearing. “Please take this with all due respect, but everybody who said yes tonight makes a lot of money,” Wilson said. “Everybody who said no doesn’t make a lot of money.”
Commissioners were expecting an overflow crowd and even set up a viewing room at a nearby county office building. The crowd that did show up was small but passionate. Those against the tax far outweighed those in favor.
“There’s nobody out here that can afford anything more,” Wesley Chapel resident Sharon Grossenbacher said.
Zephyrhills resident Richard Albrecht said he has something in common with Pasco’s roads. “I, too, am aging and falling apart, and I oppose this gas tax.”
June Hammond said she would drive to Hillsborough County to buy gas “just because I find it so intellectually offensive.”
All six Pasco municipalities passed a resolution opposing the tax. San Antonio Mayor Tim Newlon said convenience store owners may absorb the nickel per gallon to keep gas prices stable, but they will raise prices on other merchandise to offset the loss.
The only people who spoke for the tax were representatives for business associations and developers. They said the alternatives - allowing the roads to fail or raising fees - would be a step back for Pasco County.
“I understand your predicament,” said Jennifer Doerfel, executive vice president of the Tampa Bay Builders Association. “It’s very difficult as a lifelong Republican to be here myself. We have to continue to invest in our community if we want to make it better.”
Attorney Barbara Wilhite said the quality of Pasco’s roads plays a significant role in the county’s efforts to bring high-paying jobs to the county. “I had the privilege of representing T. Rowe Price, and it was critical to their decision to come to Pasco that you had quality infrastructure and you were committed to maintaining it,” she said.
Public Works Director Mike Garrett said a third of the county’s roads are rated “fair, poor or failing” and need to be repaved. His department is so understaffed, he said, it takes over a month to repair a pothole – six times longer than most jurisdictions.