Raised gas-tax promises not kept after 2 years

MANATEE — Manatee County officials have kept some promises — but not others — in how they’ve spent proceeds from a nickel-a-gallon gasoline-tax increase that took effect more than two years ago.

The county has resurfaced more than two dozen roads, replaced the Rye Road bridge and installed several sidewalks since raising its gas tax from seven cents a gallon to 12 cents in 2007, according to a Bradenton Herald analysis of county records. And several projects, including replacing two bridges and resurfacing major roads, are in the works.

But the county also has not yet done other things it promised to use the extra money for, such as enhancing Manatee County Area Transit service and replacing 10 obsolete bridges. Nor has the county spent all of the money it’s collected: About $4.6 million remains unspent.

“It didn’t do everything it was originally supposed to do,” County Commissioner Joe McClash said of the tax increase, which he supported.

County officials say they’ve had to adjust their spending plans for several reasons, including problems in getting permits and other unexpected delays; getting less tax revenue than anticipated; meeting spending restrictions; and needing more time to collect enough money for more expensive projects.

They also note the county increased MCAT funding through other sources and still plans to spend about $10 million generated by the higher gas tax in the next five years for other projects.

“It takes a while to do these projects,” said Jim Seuffert, the county’s financial management director. “In some cases, we have to accumulate money for a few years before we can do them.”

County, six cities benefit

Manatee gas stations began charging the extra nickel Jan. 1, 2007, and drivers have paid more than $12.2 million through February 2008, according to the Florida Department of Revenue. That roughly $6 million annual collection rate is about 20 percent less than the $7.5 million a year that county officials initially projected the increase would generate.

Of those returns, more than $9.7 million has gone to the county with the remainder split among Manatee’s six municipalities. Bradenton’s share is $1.04 million, with Palmetto getting $873,900 and the island cities of Anna Maria, Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach and Longboat Key splitting another $569,000, according to county records.

The allocations are based on how much each has spent on transportation projects in the preceding five years.

The county has spent most of its share on resurfacing roads, records show. That’s by design, Seuffert said. “Right now we’re putting more money into resurfacing to get the work out there,” he said.

Those roads include portions of 53rd Avenue West, Moccasin Wallow Road and Lena Road. But the majority of the resurfacing has been done on strictly residential streets.

Among them: Mill Run East through the Mill Creek and Country Creek subdivisions, West Country Club Drive North in Palm-Aire, and Fourth Avenue Circle Northwest in the West Side Court neighborhood.

Seuffert said the county is obligated to maintain those streets, many of which have deteriorated since developers built them in the 1980s and 1990s.

“When you ask (county) commissioners what roads the people want resurfaced, they’re these subdivision roads that don’t carry a lot of traffic, but we still have to take care of them,” he said.

The county routinely inspects and takes core samples from roads to determine whether or not they need to be repaved. The roads in the worst condition are given priority.

Commissioner Donna Hayes agreed that residents are concerned about their neighborhood streets. But she said she has misgivings about where the resurfacing money has been spent.

“They are county-owned roads,” she said. “We do have a responsibility to maintain them. When you do repaving, you reduce the cost of maintaining that road. But yes, I would have preferred it be used on larger roads used by more people. Still, I can see it both ways. If we can reduce the maintenance cost by repaving, then that normally would be a good expenditure.”

Bus service a sore spot

Yet Hayes still maintains the gas-tax increase shouldn’t have been enacted in the first place. She was the only commissioner who voted against the measure, saying at the time it wasn’t fair to raise taxes when county property-tax revenues were surging because of the housing boom.

Although the boom has since gone bust and falling property values has the county planning another round of budget cuts, Hayes said her position hasn’t changed. She said her district is being short-changed because the extra gas-tax money can’t be used for growth-related projects.

“This is one time that East County was left out of the equation,” she said. “It’s only the fair thing to do when you’re asking District 5 residents to pay an extra 5 cents a gallon. When you’re asking the entire county to pay an extra 5 cents, there should be a more equitable distribution.”

Another sore spot for Hayes: There’s still no county bus service to Lakewood Ranch.

That was to be funded by a penny of the gas-tax increase, which officials promised to dedicate to mass transit. Instead, officials used a penny from an older county gas tax to boost MCAT’s funding.

The move was made because the older gas tax had less restrictions than the new one on where the money could be spent, Seuffert said. And the county later suspended MCAT’s expansion plans, including Lakewood Ranch service, because of budget cuts.

The older gas-tax revenue has been used to buy buses, connect the Anna Maria Island trolley with Sarasota County buses on Longboat Key, and expand bus service on U.S. 41, he said. Although the gas-tax increase didn’t pay for those projects, it made them possible by freeing up money elsewhere, he said.

Hayes still calls it a broken promise.

“We should have stood on what we said from the beginning,” she said. “We promised the public that one cent of the new gas tax money would go to transit, and that didn’t happen.”

McClash sees it differently.

“They met the intent of the board’s request,” he said. “Not all gas taxes can be spent the same so it was decided to use a cent of the old gas-tax money instead of from the new gas-tax money. To me, that’s really a non-issue.”

But both Hayes and McClash said they’re disappointed that the county hasn’t moved faster on replacing 10 obsolete bridges targeted to receive the extra gas-tax money. Only one, the Rye Road bridge over the Upper Manatee River, has been replaced.

Seuffert said the county plans to do some of the others in coming years, but that others only need rehabilitation. He also noted the county recently created a bridge-maintenance crew.

Millions are unspent

In all, the county has spent about $4.7 million from the gas-tax increase and plans to spend another $1.5 million through the end of this fiscal year.

That leaves about $4.6 million yet to be spent. Why not more? County officials plan to spend that, plus another $10 million in future revenues, on several projects in the next five years.

Among them are designing and buying land needed to widen U.S. 301 from County Road 675 to Moccasin Wallow Road; replacing the Riverview Boulevard bridge at McLewis Bayou; and replacing the 63rd Avenue East bridge over Pearce Canal.

The county also plans to improve several intersections — such as U.S. 301 at Ellenton-Gillette Road, U.S. 301 at Fort Hamer Road and Ellenton-Gillette Road at Mendoza Road — and do more resurfacing projects.

While officials haven’t been able to fulfill every one of their promises, McClash said the gas-tax increase was needed to help the county keep up.

“Basically, the five-cent increase went toward doing what we already were doing anyway,” McClash said. “But if we hadn’t done it, we would have had more roads in disrepair, and we’d be worse off.”

Duane Marsteller, transportation/growth and development reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.

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