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Commission passes its first test on sales tax, but others await

School kids have exams this time of year. On Tuesday, the Hernando County Commission had its big test.

While finally getting around to talking publicly about a planned sales tax referendum, it got to show whether it has mastered a couple of basic concepts.

Do commissioners realize that they, not business leaders, have to get out in front of this issue? And do they understand how badly they need the help of the county School Board?

Well, at least they got the first part right.

All of the commissioners voted to move forward with the process for placing on the ballot the 10-year, 1-cent tax that would be split between the schools and the county.

And three commissioners did more than vote. They argued for the tax. They showed some leadership.

That might not have been so difficult for Diane Rowden, the lone Democrat. It was no doubt tougher for the two Republicans to show they actually are willing to fight for a new tax.

By pointing out the several advantages of a sales tax, by coming out and saying that it is a necessary investment, Chairman Wayne Dukes almost made up for shutting down the discussion of the tax when it should have happened — two weeks ago, before business leaders made their first appeal to the School Board.

And Commissioner Nick Nicholson almost made up for being the most dismissive and arrogant regarding the School Board's needs in March, when school folks came before the commission — on "bended knee," in the words of School Board member Dianne Bonfield — to ask for the reinstatement of school impact fees.

Of all the commissioners who spoke Tuesday, Nicholson sounded the most eager to work with the School Board.

Why was this advocacy so necessary?

Because, for too long, too much of the planning for this tax has been done in private meetings called by business people.

Because it's not going to escape voters' attention that more money invested in roads and other improvements will likely mean more contracts for, say, the engineering firm of Cliff Manuel, one of the main advocates of the new tax.

Because people will wonder why they are being asked to pay a new tax when one of the groups in favor of it, the builders, has received so many breaks on an established tax, the impact fees charged on new construction.

In other words, by allowing the business leaders — along with, to be fair, County Administrator Len Sossamon — to take the lead on this tax, commissioners took a big risk: that the public would start to wonder if the businesses are not only for this tax, but if it is mainly for these businesses.

It is, of course, but mainly in a way that benefits us all: This tax is the minimum public investment needed to ensure the same from the private side.

To really make this point, commissioners need to work with the schools, where the need for public investment is most obvious.

For all the talk about unity with the schools, School Board members, especially Bonfield, made it clear last week that their cooperation is by no means a sure thing — and that the School District's original plan for its own half-cent sales tax is easier to justify and has a better chance of passage.

So, whatever the local government equivalent of flowers and a card is, that's what the county needs to deliver.

The next time this issue comes up before the School Board, at least one commissioner should be there to make nice or maybe offer concessions. Ideally, the commission would reconsider its insulting, boneheaded vote on school impact fees.

At the very least, this commissioner needs to state the obvious — that the county needs the School District a lot more than the School District need the county.

Commission passes its first test on sales tax, but others await 05/29/14 [Last modified: Thursday, May 29, 2014 10:08am]
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