LARGO — As Election Day approaches, Pinellas County's elected officials will point to Hurricane Irma as a big reason why voters should renew the next round of the Penny for Pinellas 1-cent sales tax.
The last round of the penny tax helped pay for an important asset the county utilized during the storm, the Pinellas County Public Safety Complex, an $81 million fortress built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane.
Irma was the county's first test of its command center, which was built in 2014. It houses the Sheriff's Office, the Emergency Operations Center, Emergency Medical Services and the 911 dispatch center. Officials said it sheltered 200 public employees who coordinated storm efforts under one roof over the past 10 days.
"It was absolutely critical," commission chair Janet Long said about the complex.
It's also proof, officials said, of the value voters will get if they renew the 30-year tax for another decade this fall, raising an estimated $2 billion. Earlier rounds were approved in 1989, 1997 and 2007.
As the county continues cleaning up after Irma, officials at Thursday's county commission meeting previewed how they'll use the storm to convince voters to renew the tax. Mail ballots go out Oct. 3 and Election Day is Nov. 7.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said it makes the "most sense" to use Penny for Pinellas money to buy critical equipment instead of burdening homeowners with higher property taxes. The program benefits each person who lives or visits the county, he added, yet a third of it is paid for by tourists.
Without the proper facilities and equipment, the sheriff warned, the county cannot provide the necessary services to successfully get through an event like Irma.
"Those opposed to the Penny are naïve about funding critical infrastructure," he said. "It must be funded, and it is better to come from everyone who uses and needs the services than just those who pay property taxes."
County Administrator Mark Woodard pointed out that the county didn't have this kind of facility when four hurricanes slammed Florida in 2005.
"All of those things are a courtesy and directly attributable to the Penny for Pinellas campaign," Woodard said. "This is the penny that built a safer Pinellas."
Thanks to the penny, the county now has a hardened parking facility with more than 600 spaces that can shelter the sheriff's entire fleet: ground vehicles, helicopters and boats. It also has its own power plant. During major events, the complex can accommodate 700 workers. Officials from federal, state, county and city agencies can work in the same building to coordinate efforts.
In recent years, critics have accused county and city officials of using penny money for ribbon-cutting projects like recreation centers, parks and trails to bolster election campaigns.
Barb Haselden, a St. Petersburg resident and tax critic, admitted that the "timing is prefect" for elected officials to tie the program's benefits to the impact of Irma.
"We dodged a bullet this time with this storm" she said.
Some of her usual allies have come out against renewing the tax. But Haselden, a Republican who will be running for a county commission seat in 2018, said she's not against the tax — so long as the next decade of revenue is spent solely on public safety infrastructure.
But officials said there's more to public safety than just infrastructure. The county has spent $133 million in penny funds since 2010 on such needs, including $20 million on communication equipment.
Earlier this year, critics of the penny conceded that it's a popular tax and would be difficult to defeat at the polls. They also lamented that the county and cities have launched a coordinated campaign for renewal, using public money to point out which projects — bridges, libraries, recreation centers — were paid for by the tax.
Officials are also hosting informational meetings and launched a website — www.pinellascounty.org/penny/ — to highlight past and future Penny for Pinellas projects.
Of the $2 billion total that would be raised by the tax in the next decade, about $225 million would go toward countywide investments such as economic development, affordable housing, land assembly, and jail and court facilities. The county would get $915 million on top of that, while its 24 cities would split $853 million. Long estimates that the Penny for Pinellas pays for 75 percent of the infrastructure in the county and stressed that millage rates would be higher without the tax.
Gualtieri said the penny's critics shouldn't oppose it just because it's a tax. To him, it's a public benefit: "The sound bite about tax opposition should not be in the same sentence about necessary public-safety infrastructure spending."
Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente