BROOKSVILLE — To the casual observer, it seemed that the Hernando County School Board simply intended last week to cement the move to seek a half-cent sales tax on the November election ballot to replace a similar tax about to expire.
The idea of a penny increase in the sales tax?
It had never come before the School Board, nor had the County Commission ever discussed partnering with the School Board for the higher tax.
But that's what Tuesday's School Board workshop became — a debate on the merits of the two entities, along with the city of Brooksville, pitching to voters a campaign with the working name of A Penny for Progress. The increase of the sales tax to 7 cents on the dollar would help pay for school maintenance and technology needs, and for county public works projects and economic development.
School Board members were told that representatives of the three government entities, along with influential business interests — including members of Hernando Progress, the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce and the Hernando County Builders Association — have been working together behind closed doors to mold the ballot issue.
On Tuesday, supporters of the plan heralded it as the arrival of a new era of inter-governmental cooperation.
While the idea may have seemed to the public to come out of left field, it has been bouncing around County Administrator Len Sossamon's head for quite some time. He told the Times about his idea in March, but then nothing more was said publicly.
Now, he says, the time has come for a public discussion, and he has placed the issue on Tuesday's County Commission agenda.
The plan began brewing in earnest after Sossamon and Commissioner Diane Rowden visited with longtime Pasco County Administrator John Gallagher as he was about to retire. That was in mid 2013. They grilled him about the successful Penny for Pasco sales tax referendum, and he shared literature and yard signs with them.
Since Sossamon came to Hernando two years ago, it has troubled him that the county had such a long list of capital improvement needs — from dozens of road projects to improvements at the county's airport — but no money to complete them. Sossamon has also had luck with sales tax proposals in previous jobs in both North and South Carolina.
Over a period of months, Sossamon began to talk about his vision for cooperation among the government entities and the need to raise money to improve roads and build infrastructure to promote economic growth in Hernando. He spoke to members of his own business development council and the chamber of commerce.
He also spoke to SunTrust bank executive Jim Kimbrough of Hernando Progress, who asked why a gas tax wasn't an option for raising the money for the road projects. Sossamon said he explained that the gas tax would not raise enough to put a dent in the millions of dollars of work needed.
In March, Hernando Progress, a private economic development group, brought in the consultant that helped with the Penny for Pasco campaign, said Cliff Manuel of Coastal Engineering Associates, who also is a member of Hernando Progress.
In the weeks that followed, other business people and school leaders were pulled into the discussion.
For a time, Manuel admitted, business people with an antitax and antigovernment bent created some friction. But "when it became an investment discussion with this money being used for specific projects with an oversight committee,'' minds changed, he said.
Those were not the only people who needed to be convinced. About the same time, the County Commission rejected reinstating school impact fees after an impassioned appeal by school officials regarding the need for those funds, one-time levies on new construction that help pay for the cost of growth. The residual effect of that decision was clear last week when School Board member Dianne Bonfield spoke against the School District joining with the county for the penny sales tax.
Bonfield asked why all of the well-connected business leaders in the audience hadn't come to the County Commission meeting to urge commissioners to reinstate the impact fees.
No one answered that question directly.
Manuel told the School Board that the county will look to spending some of its sales tax money on public works projects that might help with the schools' needs, including building sidewalks and improving roads where cars stack up at the beginning and end of the school day.
In the end, a majority of School Board members said they would like to hear more.
County commissioners last week said they are ready to move forward with a public discussion of the combined sales tax levy.
Sossamon wants 15 percent of the county money to go into an economic development trust fund that could pay for projects such as a customs office at the airport or a 1,000-foot extension of a runway.
Public works projects on the draft list also include improvements to the intersection of Cortez and Mariner boulevards and the widening of Barclay Avenue.
Staff writer Dan DeWitt contributed to this report.