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Weatherford describes state budget as ‘historic for Pasco County’

WESLEY CHAPEL — What a difference a year makes.

This time last year Pasco’s delegation and county officials were reeling after Gov. Rick Scott struck more than $6 million in county projects from the state budget. This year, native son Will Weatherford’s last as House speaker, the county has reason to celebrate.

Every single Pasco County project in the state budget - including the $10 million for a performing arts center in Wesley Chapel - survived the governor’s veto.

“I would say last year was more normal - you win some, you lose some,” the Wesley Chapel Republican said. “This year, this budget is historic for Pasco County.”

The funding was awarded to Pasco-Hernando State College for a joint project with the county and school district as seed funding for a facility that is expected to cost $60 million. “The performing arts center - hopefully this is just the first year it’s funded - it’s going to be an economic driver for the region,” Weatherford said. “Ideally it will be a multi-use facility that can host conventions and large performances.”

Lucy Miller, spokeswoman for the college, said the center will allow the college to expand its educational offerings in the arts. “Academically, programs can be developed for music, drama, and stage production that can dovetail with high school programs,” she said. “The opportunity to host large scale business meetings and conventions is a very exciting development for the region. Students interested in the performing arts and related fields will certainly benefit and the ability to draw larger scale entertainment acts is a cultural step ahead for the county as well.”

The facility could also host high school graduations, Weatherford said. “We just had people from Pasco County driving all over Tampa Bay to go to their kids’ graduations, and a lot of those ceremonies were outdoors and were impacted by the weather,” he said.

Weatherford said the important next step is for the school district and county commissioners to identify sources for matching funds. “It’s important for them to have skin in the game,” he said.

Leaders from the Pasco Economic Development Council have recommended the county dedicate a portion of its Penny for Pasco funding toward a convention space, but Commissioner Ted Schrader said the county’s tourist tax might be a more appropriate funding source.

“Commissioner (Henry) Wilson has been wanting to raise the tourist tax, and I’ve always been reluctant to do it,” Schrader said. “It seemed pointless to me to raise the tax, just because we could. But now that we’ve got a specific project for it to go to, I would say it’s a doable item on my list.”

The school district was another big winner this year as Scott approved the funding for two regional programs designed to give students the training they need for highly technical jobs in manufacturing and aeronautics.

The $1.5 million project, known as the Tampa Bay Region Aeronautics Academy, will be the product of a strategic collaboration between Tampa International Airport, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University and the Hillsborough, Pasco, and Pinellas County school districts. This academy, the first of its kind, will serve high school students from the tri-county area who are interested in aeronautics and aviation. The unique learning opportunity will allow students to earn advanced training and industry certifications in these high-skill and high-demand areas.

Superintendent Kurt Browning credited Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, with securing the funding, as well as $500,000 in recurring revenue for the aviation academy at Sunlake High School. The academy was launched in January in a partnership with Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, with an inaugural class of 31 students, and it will expand to offer classes at Anclote, Hudson, and Zephyrhills high schools.

The budget also includes $1.15 million in matching funds to establish Industrial Certification Training Centers in Pasco, Pinellas and Hernando counties. Students will have the opportunity to apprentice with local businesses that need highly skilled workers. They’ll be able to go straight into high-paying jobs in manufacturing immediately after graduation.

“The delegation worked very hard this year, and that’s evident in the budget,” Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said. “I think the strength of the delegation - having the current speaker and the speaker designate - as well as very experienced senator in John Legg - all that pays off.”

Several water projects in Dade City, Zephyrhills and Lacoocheee that were vetoed last year were funded this time around.

Speaker Designate Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, agreed. “It’s quite a turnaround from last year,” he said. “As a delegation, we tried to focus on projects that a tremendous regional and even statewide benefits. Take the funding for Metropolitan Ministries - I think we did a better job this year of making (Gov. Scott) aware of how big a problem homelessness is in Pasco County.”

Scott had vetoed the $1 million appropriation for a Metropolitan Ministries’ transitional housing program in Holiday last year. This year, the funding went through.

“I’m really excited Metropolitan Ministries got the money for their shelter,” Commissioner Pat Mulieri said. “What’s most important to me is the kitchen they are building, because it will train people - the homeless - in culinary skills so they can find work.”

Commissioner Kathryn Starkey who was stung last year when Scott vetoed the $50 million Coast-to-Coast trail project had reason to celebrate Monday. The project, which includes funding to connect Pasco’s Starkey Trail with the Pinellas Trail, was fully funded.

“It’s in,” she said. “Now I’ve just got to get our staff on the ball, and we’ve got to work with Pinellas so we can apply for the funding. We haven’t started the design yet.”

Mulieri said the Pasco delegation “really stepped up to the plate.” But she also credited Shawn Foster, the county’s new lobbyist, for Pasco’s windfall.

Other Pasco items in the state budget include:

• $10,000 to cover start-up costs for the Homeless Resource Center

• $200,000 to expand the Prodigy Program for at-risk youth at Lacoochee-Trilby Community Center

• $1 million for Hacienda Hotel restoration

• $2.7 million in recurring funds for Child Protective Care services in the Sixth Judicial Circuit

• $1.2 million for Zephyrhills fire protection water line

• $520,000 for Dade City hydrant and valve replacement

• $713,900 for Dade City Orange Valley well water project

• $1 million for Pithlachascotee-Anclote Conservation Effort

• $500,000 for Lacoochee-Trilby water system improvements

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