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Commissioners get head start on pushing Penny for Pasco program

NEW PORT RICHEY — With a public vote still three years away, Pasco commissioners are laying the groundwork to renew the Penny for Pasco sales tax approved by voters in 2004.

The 10-year, $437 million proposal was billed as a way to help pay for school construction, roads, environmental lands and public safety equipment. At a work session Tuesday, commissioners lauded the tax as a way to pay for dozens of critical improvements.

"All I can say is thank God for the Penny," said commission chairwoman Ann Hildebrand. "If our citizens look and see what this Penny has done … it's a pretty doggone good bargain."

Hildebrand said commissioners "need to start planting the seed for 2014," when the tax would come back to voters for renewal.

County staffers have included a renewed Penny into long-term transportation planning. Under the new "mobility fee" endorsed last month by commissioners, lower transportation impact fees would be partly offset by proceeds from the renewed 1-cent sales tax.

During earlier discussions about cutting impact fees on new homes, County Administrator John Gallagher said that in exchange for cutting the fees, he asked developers to support the new Penny. Such a move could include chipping in campaign donations to a political group set up to support the proposal.

But the sales job needs some work. Persuading voters to approve a new tax these days is a lot tougher than in 2004. And Commissioner Ted Schrader noted that thousands of new voters have moved to Pasco since then and don't know about the Penny or what it paid for.

"I think that we've demonstrated that we have spent those dollars wisely," he said.

Because of those new residents, he added, "it's even more important for us to continue to demonstrate to the citizens where the money's coming from and how these improvements are being completed."

After a few boom years and then some reduced collections because of the down economy, the Penny is projected to bring in roughly the original $437 million estimate from 10 years ago.

Of the proceeds, the school district first gets a reimbursement for reducing its property tax rate, a sweetener designed to make the proposal more palatable to voters. So far, that cut has lowered property tax bills by $67 million.

The county gets 45 percent of the rest of the money, and schools get another 45 percent. The remaining 10 percent is split among the cities.

So far, the school district has spent $172 million of its share, including bonds that must be repaid with future collections. That has helped pay for 11 new schools and major renovation projects at several others, including Gulf High, Pasco Middle and Pasco High.

Road improvements get the next biggest share, an estimated $73 million. So far, the county has spent $27 million, including 10 completed projects and another eight under construction. After some original projects came in under budget or were paid for with state or federal stimulus money, commissioners added another 19 projects to the list. Most of those are still being designed, though officials expect most to be finished by the time the tax would be renewed.

Officials have spent $12 million for sheriff's and fire rescue equipment, mostly for new cruisers, in-car laptops, defibrillators and ambulances.

The county has also bought 1,300 acres of environmental lands, spending $10 million out of an estimated $35 million earmarked for conservation.

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

Commissioners get head start on pushing Penny for Pasco program 04/12/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 12, 2011 9:03pm]
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