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Hernando school considers new sales tax to replace expiring half-cent levy

BROOKSVILLE — One number sticks out to Hernando County School District officials as they look at the district's financial picture over the next decade: $223 million.

That's the amount the district expects to spend for critical needs between now and 2022 — $110 million for debt acquired to build schools, $73 million for maintenance, $30 million for new growth and $10 million for technology.

It's no small chunk of change. And it has district officials asking a familiar question: From where is the money going to come?

One potentially substantial source: a new sales tax to replace the half-cent levy that expires later this year.

The current sales tax began in 2005, and in its first nine years it generated roughly $67.7 million, or about $7.5 million a year, to pay for school construction.

While talk of a replacement measure has bubbled for months, school officials are now putting together a proposal. It would appear on the November general election ballot.

Many of the details are still being debated. But district officials agree there is a need.

"That loss of that money (would be) significant for us," superintendent Lori Romano said. "It would be extremely detrimental."

• • •

Hernando County has a history of backing sales taxes to aid schools.

In 1998, voters approved a half-cent sales tax to help pay for the construction of Nature Coast Technical High School. That tax, which received 53.5 percent of the vote, covered the majority of the cost of the $41.3-million school. It generated $27.5 million.

Hernando Classroom Teachers Association president Jo Ann Hartge was in charge of the teachers union during the passage of that sales tax. She said it was a major effort and took a lot of advocacy and meetings with business and community organizations.

"It took us a year to get that one passed," she said. "I'll tell you that."

Voters were asked to support another half-penny sales tax in 2004 for an additional 10 years, this time expanding it to pay for any new construction. At the time, the district estimated the tax would generate at least $65 million and contribute to the construction of six new schools.

It passed — with 55.1 percent of the vote. The vote, however, revealed a split in the county. Residents on the fast-growing west side of Hernando tended to vote for the tax, while people on the more rural east side of the county rejected it.

• • •

In preparation for going to the voters once more, the district is forming a committee to make recommendations on what items should go on the sales tax referendum, said Roland "Bo" Bavota, director of facilities and the head of the committee.

"We want to make sure we are very clear to the public how this money will be spent and where it will be spent," Bavota said. "We want to be very accountable to the voter."

In the past, the sales tax questions have been simple, the needs clear. In 1998, the district asked for funding only to build Nature Coast. In 2004, officials asked for money for new school construction during a period of rapid growth.

This time, voters will likely be asked to approve a broader request.

Needs include money to cover renovations and remodeling, major capital construction and technology, Bavota said. Revenue could also be used to pay off debt, he noted.

The list is not finalized, Bavota noted. More items could be added or subtracted by the committee, superintendent and School Board members.

As decisions are made, one factor will be whether the County Commission goes along with the School Board's recent recommendation to approve a new educational impact fee on new construction in the county. If approved at its full level, the impact fee is expected to bring in about $61.2 million over the years, money that could be used to pay off debt.

The district must also decide for how many years a new sales tax would be collected — and whether to pursue another half-cent tax or a different amount.

The language for any tax referendum needs to be to the Supervisor of Elections Office by Aug. 22, according to Elections Supervisor Shirley Anderson.

Bavota says he wants to get it in by July.

• • •

A majority of School Board members supports placing a new sales tax before the voters, with some reservations.

"I think Hernando County residents would be very foolish if they did not continue with that," said School Board Chairman Gus Guadagnino. "People are already paying that. . . . It's not a big impact on anybody."

He said the money is extremely important as more is asked of the School District.

"There's a lot of changes taking place in education, especially in technology," Guadagnino said. The money to pay for those changes, he said, isn't coming from state or federal sources.

Board member Cynthia Moore agreed.

"I think we need to have it," she said, noting the district's needs and less state money that's available. "If we don't have that (money), we're going to be up a creek without a paddle."

Board member John Sweeney wrote in an email that a new half-cent sales tax would have his support, "if the purpose is clear and the plan is solid."

"The superintendent mentioned that without it, we will not be able to meet technology requirements going forward," Sweeney wrote. "We are also preparing to meet the cost for performance pay, and we have a host of other needs to address."

He said he wouldn't support a tax higher than the current half-cent. He noted that, even if voters approve the half-cent tax, the total sales tax rate in Hernando would still be lower than in many surrounding counties.

Danny Valentine can be reached at dvalentine@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.

Hernando school considers new sales tax to replace expiring half-cent levy 01/24/14 [Last modified: Friday, January 24, 2014 6:15pm]

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