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Proponents gear up for Penny for Pasco campaign on November ballot

LAND O'LAKES — The campaign to renew the Penny for Pasco, virtually silent during the run up to the Aug. 14 primary election, is about to get busy.

Facing a crowded election season, with the sales tax referendum as the final item on the Nov. 6 ballot, proponents know they have much work ahead to get voters to find it worthwhile to go to the back page and vote "yes."

"We are 100 percent certain that when the voters understand the need and the good done by the Penny for Pasco ... there will be a resounding support," said Dade City lawyer and former mayor Hutch Brock, campaign co-chairman. "The challenge will be to educate."

Already, the school district distributed informational fliers to all parents on school registration day, explaining the history and the proposed future of the 1 percent tax. District officials have scheduled presentations to parent groups at every school, starting Sept. 4 at Anclote High.

County leaders are setting up sessions with homeowners associations and other civic organizations. They're asking any interested groups to contact them for a presentation. And the citizens committee is preparing to have a presence at events throughout the county, such as the upcoming Taste of Trinity.

"It's go time," Brock said.

Through early August, the campaign collected $43,075 to back its effort. Much of the money came from builders, who could get a piece of the construction that the tax would generate.

The campaign fund is covering the cost of signs, which will hit the streets in the next few weeks, and also paying for some consulting. Brock said the advice is needed, as the community volunteers don't know all the ins and outs of running a campaign.

They've hired former county government public information officer Diane Jones to handle the local daily activities, and Bradenton-based consultant Tom Nolan for the broader perspective. Nolan has advised several successful government tax referenda, which have generated around $10 billion, since the 1990s.

To get the message onto television and into mailboxes, though, the committee would need more.

"We are in full fundraising mode," Jones said.

They're not counting on a huge cash influx, given the tight economy and the expenses of other big races up the ballot. So the push for support will focus on the grassroots, including a strong online component that incorporates Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and three websites.

"We are trying to get the word out to the most people possible and asking them to share the message," Jones said.

The theme is one of promises made, promises kept.

The county and school district followed through on the promises they made to improve the roads and infrastructure, and build schools and remodel aging ones, with the first round of the tax that voters approved in 2004, Brock said. Residents therefore should rest assured that the governments can be trusted with the next list of projects if the tax passes again, he said.

While government officials can't urge support, they are doing their part by detailing the past performance and current need.

"We are just educating people," school district spokeswoman Summer Robertson said. "It's over $200 million at stake (for the district). We have tremendous need. If it passes it will help us meet that need."

Proposed new school district projects include major renovations of 1970s era Kelley schools, such as Land O'Lakes High and Bayonet Point Middle, as well as technology upgrades for several schools. The county's list for its share of the funds includes vehicles and equipment for public safety, economic development projects and several bicycle/pedestrian trails.

Brock said he feels confident in the worthiness of these projects. He doesn't want to take for granted that everyone will feel the same, though. That's why the campaign committee wants to get information to as many residents as possible.

"Some people are going to believe taxes in any form, in any way, shouldn't be approved," he said. "But then you have the people in the middle of the field. Those are the people we want to educate."

Pasco Republican Party activist Ann Bunting led opposition to the 2004 sales tax. She said she hasn't changed her views this time around.

But Bunting had no plans to fight the referendum this fall, and she hadn't heard of any organized effort either.

"That's problem with a tax: Once people live with it, they get used to it," she said. "It will probably pass, unless there is a strong grassroots effort that I really haven't been feeling."

Brock stressed that the tax is being pushed by residents, and not government. He suggested that's one of the reasons why it won support nearly a decade ago, and why he thinks it stands a good chance of renewal in the fall.

He wouldn't assume no opposition, regardless.

"I never want to rest, never want to think there aren't some folks out there," he said. "We are going forward with gusto."

Staff writer Lee Logan contributed to this report. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

. Fast facts

About the Penny

Voters first approved the Penny for Pasco sales tax in 2004, and officials started collecting the tax in 2005. It is slated to sunset after a decade unless voters decide to extend it.

The one-cent sales tax would generate an estimated $502 million in the next decade. County government and the school district each get 45 percent of the revenue, or $226 million apiece. Pasco's six cities split the remaining 10 percent based on population.

By law, the money must go toward capital expenses — building roads or schools, buying land or equipment — and cannot pay for recurring expenses like employees' salaries.

Proponents gear up for Penny for Pasco campaign on November ballot 08/25/12 [Last modified: Saturday, August 25, 2012 1:55pm]

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