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$30 million remains unspent from Penny for Pasco

As Pasco officials prepare to ask voters for another decade of the Penny for Pasco sales tax, the county has not spent or budgeted nearly $30 million of expected revenue from the first round.

Much of that cash includes a planned contingency fund, savings from falling construction costs and money for environmental land purchases that are often complex and hard to predict.

Administrators promise the money will be put to good use, noting the county still has two years to collect and spend the proceeds before the tax expires in December 2014.

"That balance, by the end of the 10 years, will be spent because there are more needs than there is money," said Chief Assistant County Administrator Michele Baker. "As we are looking at the big picture and prioritizing those needs, we'll figure out the best way to spend that money."

Baker said commissioners likely will review an update on Penny projects this fall or early next year. As they get a better sense of exactly how much money is left over, they can begin selecting additional projects to pay for.

"We don't want to be hasty," she said. "We want to evaluate the true needs that are out there."

Overall, the Penny is expected to raise roughly $421 million over 10 years, with the county getting $139 million. The School District gets an equal share, plus about $113 million to offset a property tax rollback of 50 cents per $1,000 in assessed value. The six cities will split about $30 million.

Even though the tax doesn't end until 2014, a vote to extend the Penny for another 10 years is slated for the Nov. 6 general election ballot. The second round would bring in $502 million.

Republican state committeeman Bill Bunting fiercely opposed the tax when it was first approved, but he has taken a more nuanced stance this year. He said the money not yet tied to specific projects raises questions about whether the county needs a full Penny during the second round.

"Is there room to cut a little bit?" Bunting said. "I guess that is my question."

He added: "They've just got to be truthful and not put a spin on it because they want (the renewal) and then it becomes a permanent tax."

Former County Commissioner Steve Simon, who supported the Penny in 2004, praised county officials for keeping an "unusually good" accounting of how Penny money has been spent to date.

But Simon said he only supported the first round because it included the property tax rollback. (That tax swap is not included in the second round.) He also said he is "not a lover of acquiring any more environmental lands" and is skeptical of using a portion of the new Penny for economic development incentives.

The $29.7 million "unspent balance" includes: $7 million for transportation projects, another $7 million for contingencies, $13 million for acquiring environmental lands and $2.7 million for public safety equipment.

The contingency money was included to pay for expected cost overruns for road projects. But thanks to the economic collapse, the county had the opposite problem. Construction prices plummeted, and projects came in under bid. Additionally, federal stimulus money and the state Department of Transportation covered some projects on the original list, allowing the county to add 20 new projects in 2010.

Those savings could be used to speed up some transportation or public safety projects included on the county's recent list for the second round of the Penny.

The environmental lands money is more complex. The county is focused on purchasing land or conservation easements on a series of "wildlife corridors" that would connect large tracts of conservation land. Following a 2000 court settlement, the county agreed to pursue buying the corridors, also known as "critical linkages."

Deals are often slow to develop. Property owners must agree to negotiate with the county. Officials must document scientific benefits to habitat and water conservation. The county must also solicit appraisals and agree on a final price.

County land buying officials "have to have that money in the bank before they can begin that negotiation," Baker said. "They anticipate needing all of both Pennies in order to accomplish it all."

Penny money set aside for schools was used during the school district's building boom and helped pay for eight new schools and improvements at 10 others. Penny proceeds were either used immediately or pledged to repay construction bonds.

Overall, the county has spent more than $63 million. Among the purchases: 14 completed road projects, 570 Sheriff's Office cruisers, 100 defibrillators and 1,400 acres of conservation land. Many other road projects and intersection improvements are under way, out to bid, or in planning stages.

The second round of the Penny would allocate $90.4 million for transportation projects and $45 million each for public safety equipment, environmental lands and economic development. Contingency money would be built into the transportation category.

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

$30 million remains unspent from Penny for Pasco 05/05/12 [Last modified: Saturday, May 5, 2012 1:27pm]
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