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County projects owe big debt to Penny for Pasco tax

Wildflowers bloom along the landscape at the Upper Cotee River Preserve, a project paid for with the Penny for Pasco tax.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Wildflowers bloom along the landscape at the Upper Cotee River Preserve, a project paid for with the Penny for Pasco tax.

When voters approved the Penny for Pasco sales tax in 2004, the county promised to spend its share of the proceeds on a specific list of projects: road improvements, conservation land and public safety equipment.

So halfway through the 10-year life of the tax, how has Pasco County spent its piece of the pie?

It paid for nine traffic projects and put a dozen others in queue. It bought such public safety items as 440 marked patrol cars. It bought more than 1,000 acres for conservation.

Officials say many projects and big-ticket items might not have gotten the green-light, but for the penny.

"I don't know what we would've done without it," said Commissioner Ted Schrader. "We would've had really difficult times meeting some of the needs."

By the end of 2009, the extra penny had pulled in about $205 million — more than the $181 million originally projected by that point. But collections began slipping below projections in 2008 and are expected to stay that way through 2014.

Of the proceeds, Pasco School district first takes off the top its reimbursement for reducing its property tax rate, a tax swap designed to make the Penny's passage more palatable to voters. Then the county gets 45 percent, the school gets 45 percent and the cities split the remaining 10 percent.

The county's share is broken down further: 50 percent goes to traffic improvements, 25 percent for acquisition of environmentally sensitive lands, 20 percent for public safety. The remaining 5 percent is set aside in a contingency fund.

Officials point to the county's environmental lands program as the prime example of something that could not have been accomplished without the Penny.

Pasco County has been able to use the sales tax to leverage other funds to purchase such properties as the Upper Pithlachascotee and Hoover tracts near Shady Hills. Those two adjacent sites total 122 acres, most of which had been slated for residential development. Though public access is limited currently to guided nature walks or classes, officials expect to open up the tract's hiking trail to the general public this year.

Most of the road projects have come in under budget, freeing up money for additional projects. So far, the roadwork has been focused mainly in west Pasco. County officials hope to put an east Pasco intersection, at Happy Hill/Prospect Road, out to bid later this year. All told, the county spent about $20.4 million on its traffic projects through the end of September 2009.

Some of the original plans for the Penny have been scrapped, at least for now, given the county's budget woes. For instance, the tax was supposed to cover the $2.9 million bill to build two new fire stations, one at State Road 52 and Majestic Boulevard and one at State Road 52 and Hays Road. But the county lacks the money to operate those stations.

Commissioners will have to decide how to spend that additional money.

Getting the tax passed the first time around generated contentious debate and required a huge political effort. And soon, the talk may turn to asking voters to renew the penny.

Schrader said he's hoping that by the time that conversation rolls around, the economy will have improved.

"I guess what I'm saying," said Schrader, "is I'm glad it's not on the ballot in November 2010."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Fast facts



Penny for Pasco: The story so far

$437MHow much it was originally expected to generate over 10 years

$441MHow much it is now on track to generate

Completed traffic improvements:

• Collier Parkway and Weeks Boulevard intersection improvement

• Grand Boulevard and Mile Stretch Drive intersection improvement

• Grand Boulevard and Moog Road intersection improvement

• Grand Boulevard and Trouble Creek Road intersection improvement

• Little Road and Ponderosa Avenue intersection improvement

• Regency Park Boulevard and San Miguel Drive intersection improvement

• Seven Springs Boulevard median and safety improvements

• U.S. 19 and Fox Hollow Drive intersection improvement

• Resurface State Road 54 from Curley Road to Morris Bridge Road

Environmental land:

Five properties acquired: Pasco Palms, Upper Pithlachascotee and Hoover tracts, Aripeka Heights, Morsani property

Total acreage: 1,047 acres

$9 million spent, including appraisals for future acquisitions

$10 million: Amount available

Public Safety:

102 automatic defibrillators ($137,568)

3 ambulances ($284,400)

8 fire/rescue vehicles ($1.6 million)

437 sheriff's vehicles, including 7 motorcycles ($8.6 million)

422 laptops for sheriff ($526,155)

$3.4 million: Amount currently set aside in a 5 percent contingency fund

Source: Pasco County Government

County projects owe big debt to Penny for Pasco tax 05/01/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 1, 2010 3:43pm]
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