TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Public streets in the Lacoochee community were paved in 2013 as part of a plan by Pasco County commissioners to bring progress and businesses to one of the poorest areas in the county.

Now, eight years later, commercial trucks and public buses use some of the roads daily. But it’s the residents who live along those roads, totaling just over two miles, that must now figure out a way to pay the bills for the paving project.

And get this: those bills, totaling nearly $850,000, didn’t start showing up in homeowners’ mailboxes until November 2020. Homeowners were given a month to pay – with a deadline just before Christmas. They were given the choice to make payments over 10 years at a 4.25 interest rate.

“They’re trying to bill us $20,000, just for my share,” said Angela Ramer.

What’s happening in Lacoochee highlights a county-wide issue over a controversial paving assessment system. Some say it’s time Pasco County changes the way it pays to pave roads to make it more equitable and not stick homeowners with big bills all at once.

Our Better Call Behnken investigation found Lacoochee isn’t alone, although there are serious questions about why this particular project was approved without the consent of residents who now have to pay. Why it took so long to send out bills also remains a mystery.

Most municipalities pay for residential road paving projects for public residential streets through property taxes. In that case, property owners pay a set amount each year, typically less than $200, for all road projects, according to public works officials.

In Pasco County, however, roads are paved through paving assessments. This impacts old neighborhoods and new ones, and that’s a concern in one of the fastest-growing areas of Florida. If streets wear down and need to be repaved, it has to be through public assessments.

In most cases, roads aren’t paved or repaved unless a homeowner requests the service and at least 50 percent of those who would have to pay for it agree to do so.

Investigator Shannon Behnken found that didn’t happen in Lacoochee.

Pasco County Public Works officials confirmed this project was what’s called “board initiated,” meaning the Pasco County Commission didn’t ask residents for a vote. The board voted for the project, in the best interest of progress for the neighborhood. Public hearings were held, but residents didn’t vote.

County Commission Chairman Ron Oakley wasn’t on the board in 2013 when the 14 roads were paved, but he represents the Lacoochee neighborhood now. He says Lacoochee is an example of why the county needs a better system to pay for paving roads.

“It just doesn’t work when you have an economy of poor families that live in that area, it doesn’t work for them,” Oakley said.

He added that, shortly after he took office in 2016, he shot down another proposal, Phase 3, of paving in Lacoochee.

“When I got here and saw and saw Phase 3 and what it was going to charge and what it was going to do to the community there, the expense of it,” he said, “I knew people couldn’t afford it.”

Oakley said some on the commission accused him of slowing down progress in Lacoochee.

“I wasn’t slowing down progress,” he said. “I was protecting the people who live there.”

The homeowners affected by earlier phases of the project now have liens attached to their homes and the bills must be paid when a home is sold.

Carl Jenkins Sr. says he has lived in Lacoochee since 1958 and is terrified he could lose his home over the more than $5,000 bill.

“If I made any kind of a payment, it would have to be like $20 a month or something,” he said.

There are grants to help some homeowners pay these bills. But every homeowner interviewed by Better Call Behnken says they’ve been given various reasons why they don’t qualify, even those living below the poverty level. Commissioner Oakley has agreed to ask staff to take a closer look at these homeowners’ situations.

Pasco County Public Works officials say there are internal discussions about changing the paving assessment system and they are currently working on potential proposals.

Oakley said he would support such a change and hopes our Better Call Behnken investigation into Lacoochee’s paving projects will help pave the way for support for change.