NEW PORT RICHEY — For officials of a cash-strapped city, the Penny for Pasco sales tax is a financial lifeline.
If voters decide Nov. 6 to extend the tax for another decade, the new round of collections would begin in 2015 — right as New Port Richey faces a financial crisis that council member Bill Phillips once referred to as a "tsunami" of economic trouble.
With the city's growing debt service on several redevelopment properties expected to swallow much of its other funding, the only money available for projects would come from "critical" Penny funds, according to a report by City Manager John Schneiger.
"Based on scary cash-flow projections for the general fund over the next five years, the city is deferring all but mission critical capital improvements or those where significant outside funds will be leveraged," he wrote in a memo to council members.
So council members want to have some wiggle room on how they'd spend their piece of Penny revenues, which would bring the city an estimated $18 million over the tax's 10-year extension. While county officials and the School Board are developing specific project lists for their share of the tax, New Port Richey officials are simply identifying categories for possible spending.
The categories include utilities, transportation, public safety, public facilities, economic development, community redevelopment, parks and recreation facilities, and urban forestry.
In each of those categories, the council approved lists of wants such as utility infrastructure improvements, street paving, sidewalk expansions, vehicle replacement and maintenance, building improvements and ecotourism development. But exact projects were not nailed down.
"We have chosen to be general," Schneiger said.
It's similar to the stance the city took during the lead-up to the first tax voters passed in 2004, and it's the right way to go, said Phillips, who co-chaired the citizens committee that campaigned for passing the current Penny tax.
Phillips said with the city's fluid financial difficulties, decisions on how to use funds will need to be made on a case-by-case basis.
But he said voters can be assured they will see the improvements.
State law limits how sales tax revenue can be used — it can't go toward salaries, for instance. And the city has a record of using the funds efficiently, Phillips said, noting the Main Street improvements done with the current Penny for Pasco.
"The problem you have if you get too site specific is then you can't use those dollars for things that might come up that may be critical or more important than a project you have gotten locked into," he said. "But I can assure the voters that we will be good stewards of that money."
The lion's share of the sales tax — 90 percent — would be split between county government and the school district while the six Pasco cities would divide the remaining 10 percent.
So far the renewal campaign has emphasized that officials spent the first round of funding exactly as they told voters they would: Promises made, promises kept.
Still, New Port Richey's financial problems, coupled with an uncertain economy, are good reasons for the city to have a more general spending plan, said Hutch Brock, who is co-chair of the Pasco Citizens Committee political group that is promoting renewing the tax.
"I certainly understand the municipalities' financial constraints. The economy has thrown a lot of curveballs," he said. "It's not the type of plan where anyone is trying to hide money or to do anything other than say, 'Here are the specific areas where we want to use the Penny funds.' "