CLEARWATER — The Pinellas County Commission took the first steps Tuesday toward asking voters to renew the fourth round of a countywide 1 percent sales tax that is expected to generate $2 billion over the next decade.
The effort to renew the Penny for Pinellas 1-cent tax in 2017 began with Tuesday's two-hour workshop, where commissioners discussed revenue projections for the next decade of the tax and agreed to educate voters about its benefits before ballots are cast next November. The tax has raked in billions of dollars for Pinellas projects since 1990. If approved, the next round would run between 2020 and 2030.
The education campaign would center on reminding residents of the importance of the tax by showing how the penny-per-dollar levy has been spent in the cities and unincorporated county areas. Voters approved earlier rounds of the tax in 1989, 1997 and 2007.
"It's really the penny that built a better Pinellas," county Administrator Mark Woodard told commissioners. "Fundamentally, it's about enhancing the quality of life in Pinellas County."
The money has paid for fire stations, equipped first-responders and built roads, bridges, park trails and other infrastructure projects. The mayors, city councils and city managers in 17 municipalities are preparing wish lists for the next round of funding.
Talk of renewing the tax comes as the county grapples with the recent sewage crisis: Local sewer systems released more than 250 million gallons of waste after Hurricane Hermine struck in September, the bulk of it from St. Petersburg.
The city needs millions to fix its overwhelmed system, and other cities can direct the tax revenues to upgrade their sewer systems, as well.
The county has launched a website — pinellascounty.org/penny/ — to highlight the hundreds of projects already paid for with the penny tax.
Officials stressed that a third of the tax is paid for by tourists, not residents.
The $2 billion that the next decade of tax money is projected to bring in would be divided this way: About $225 million would go toward countywide investments like economic development, affordable housing, land assembly and jail and court facilities. The county would get $915 million on top of that, while the cities would split $853 million.
Economic development director Mike Meidel said the county should use part of the $225 million to buy and improve parcels of land to recruit companies. The best locations are near interstates and the airport, he said. The lack of "truly shovel-ready" land, he said, deters companies from bringing jobs to the county.
Commissioners reiterated they don't want to prop up private developers or become land barons. "It has to be all about jobs," Commissioner Karen Seel said.
In January, county leaders will begin meetings with municipal officials from across Pinellas. The deadline to establish spending priorities is April. County leaders hope to finish the ballot language by August.
Bill Horne and Matt Spoor, city managers of Clearwater and Safety Harbor, respectively, told the board the sales tax has helped stave off increased millage rates and kept projects and services afloat during the Great Recession.
"Penny for Pinellas has been a good-news story for the city of Clearwater," Horne said. "I cant think of anything as beneficial."
Said Spoor: "I cant imagine what Pinellas County would look like without Penny for Pinellas."
Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente.