Monday, January 22, 2018
Education

Business leaders pitch penny sales tax plan to Hernando School Board

BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County School Board on Tuesday was slated to discuss and then move forward with plans for a new half-cent sales tax that, if voters approved, would replace an expiring half-cent tax.

Instead, after hearing about millions of dollars in school maintenance and technology needs the new tax could help pay for, the chairman of the district's half-cent sales tax committee, John Druzbick, asked the board's indulgence to hear about "another opportunity that has come before us.''

The new opportunity was a strong pitch by some of the county's most influential business leaders and County Administrator Len Sossamon to back a full penny sales tax on the November ballot. It would be shared by the School District and the county.

Druzbick, who has served in the past on both the School Board and the County Commission, maintained that strong collaboration among the county's government entities, including the city of Brooksville, was taking the county in a positive new direction. Community stakeholders, he argued, believe that a penny sales tax is the right way for Hernando County to go.

After listening to the pitch, the majority of the School Board decided they wanted to hear more about the idea and see project lists. They agreed to delay a vote on the half-cent proposal scheduled for their meeting Tuesday night.

But not everyone was on board.

Board member Dianne Bonfield eyed the businessmen in the audience — Jim Kimbrough, Cliff Manuel, Gary Schraut, Morris Porton, Randy Woodruff and Mickey Smith, among others — and asked why they were not present several months ago to support the School District when the County Commission rejected reinstating impact fees for the schools.

If the county wants to seek its own half-cent sales tax, Bonfield said, fine. Keeping the county's and School District's proposals separate, she argued, "empowers the voter to choose."

She said the School District needs the revenue a renewed sales tax would produce and that attaching the county's funding needs — which would amount to a new tax — might jeopardize the district's referendum.

"We're on life support here,'' she said. "If we don't get this half-cent tax, we're in trouble."

School Board Chairman Gus Guadagnino also voiced caution about moving forward with the penny proposal. He said that if the county really wanted to collaborate with the district, it should send a portion of its half-penny revenue directly to the schools because the needs there are so great.

School Board member Matt Foreman, on the other hand, said he wanted to hear more.

"I don't see the harm in us taking a further look at this,'' Foreman said. "We're not making a commitment on the penny, but gathering more information to see what this project list looks like.''

Board member Cynthia Moore said she wanted to see the details of a survey that Druzbick referenced favoring the penny tax.

Manuel said the county's business community, the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce, Hernando Progress and the Hernando Builders Association all are in support of the penny tax and more governmental collaboration.

Together, he explained, they could work to create projects that would benefit everyone — including roads, sidewalks and other infrastructure. That is how Pasco County succeeded with its Penny for Pasco movement, he said.

A political action committee would be formed to bring a unified message to the community, with a campaign trotted out to voters in August, just a few months before the November ballot question would be posed.

A steering committee comprising the various stakeholders, including the county and the School District, would be established.

But officials noted that the time line was short and that a lot of work needs to be done to prepare project lists and interlocal agreements.

The School Board is slated to hear more information at its June 10 workshop.

The County Commission has not yet had a public discussion about seeking a sales tax.

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