CLEARWATER — The Pinellas County Commission is trying to convince voters to renew the 1-cent Penny for Pinellas sales tax for another decade.
So this news comes at an inconvenient time: The commission recently decided to sell off a piece of land at a loss of $1.7 million — money that was raised by the penny sales tax.
The commission voted 6-1 on Sept. 26 to sell land in Indian Rocks Beach on Gulf Boulevard for $1.1 million. But it paid $2.8 million for the parcel in 2006, at the height of the real estate boom.
The project crumbled when Indian Rocks Beach city officials cried foul over the parking lot. County officials now admit that they didn't check with the city before planning the now failed project.
The county commission called the $1.7 million loss a "lesson learned" and vowed to get support from local officials before taxpayer money is spent on future projects.
"It was definitely miscommunication with the city," County Commissioner Ken Welch said about the loss. "It is a lesson learned."
With just one bidder, Commissioner John Morroni said the county should sell the property to recoup whatever it can and stop paying $3,800 a year to maintain the land.
"I would not take a chance on waiting," he said before the vote.
The $1.7 million loss could be fodder for critics who accuse county and city leaders of using the penny tax for pet projects that lead to election-year ribbon-cutting ceremonies.
"When it's other people's money, you can do all kinds of experiments," said Barb Haselden, a tax critic and 2018 commission candidate. "It's a lot of money. They're not the shrewdest business people."
County leaders counter that the penny tax pays for critical infrastructure, such as the $81 million Pinellas County Public Safety Complex, built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane.
Commissioner Karen Seel voted against the sale and said she voted against the purchase in 2006.
Four current commissioners — Janet Long, Pat Gerard, Dave Eggers and Charlie Justice — were not on the board when the county originally bought the land.
The vacant property once housed Fred's Service Station. The county, records show, cobbled together three parcels to create less than a half acre for the parking lot. The following year, the county demolished vacant structures and sodded and fenced the property. Then came the Great Recession.
In 2015, the county advertised the land, but the commission reject the lone bid of $613,000.
The prospective buyer is considering a mixed-use project, said Indian Rocks Beach city manager Brently Gregg Mims. If the purchase goes through, the proceeds would go back into the penny program, county administrator Mark Woodard said.
Voters approved earlier rounds of the tax in 1989, 1997 and 2007 and will get the chance to do so again on Nov. 7. One of the biggest selling points of the program is officials estimate that one-third of the revenue comes from tourists. A countywide campaign has been under way for months to tout how the penny tax has been spent the past 30 years. The mayors, city councils and city managers in 17 municipalities have prepared wish lists for the next round of funding from 2020 to 2030.
In addition to hosting meetings, officials have developed websites to highlight past projects and erected signs in front of buildings to tell voters what came from the tax program.
Officials have already projected how the $2 billion that would be raised by the tax in the next decade would be divided: 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 the cities would split $853 million.
Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente