This fall, voters likely will be asked if they want to renew the 10-year Penny for Pasco sales tax. And according to a poll commissioned by supporters, the penny enjoys wide support.
The Oct. 23-24 survey asked 400 likely voters in Pasco about their opinion of the tax. According to the results, 78 percent said they would support renewing the tax, while the remaining 22 percent were opposed.
"The numbers are pretty staggering in support," said School Board member Allen Altman, a key backer of the 2004 campaign to enact the tax.
Added County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, who has reviewed the poll: "People will feel like they've gotten a pretty good bang for their penny."
Overall, the tax is expected to collect roughly $421 million, slightly less than the original estimate. That money is split among school construction, road projects, sheriff and fire equipment, and environmental land acquisition. The cities also get a cut for infrastructure projects.
"If we had to pay for those things without the penny, it never would've happened," she said.
Altman said "it would have been disastrous" for the school system if the sales tax had not been approved, given growth pressures and the state requirement of maximum class sizes.
Besides helping to build 11 new schools, the tax also helped pay for multiple renovations and expansions. "That would've never occurred except for those penny dollars," Altman said.
A key feature of the tax is that the school district first gets a reimbursement for reducing its property tax rate, a sweetener designed to make the proposal more palatable to voters. So far, that cut has lowered property tax bills by at least $67 million.
That cut would stay in place if the tax were renewed, Altman said. But the district would likely increase property taxes if voters reject the tax.
Former assistant schools superintendent Ray Gadd commissioned the poll using $15,000 in leftover cash in a campaign account from 2004. He said that when voters in the survey learned about that scenario, more than half of voters who originally opposed the tax changed their mind.
"Maybe they were holding their nose, but they became supporters," he said.
Gadd said his survey is in line with other polls he has seen from local politicians who also asked about renewing the penny tax. It's also in line with an April online survey of 1,300 residents conducted by the county. That survey showed 72 percent of respondents said they would renew the tax. About 13 percent were opposed and 15 percent had no opinion.
Though the tax expires at the end of 2014, a renewal vote this year would allow the school district and the county to continue to collect revenue without a lapse. Supporters want to schedule a vote on the new penny tax for this November, so they don't face the criticism of 10 years ago when the vote coincided with a low-turnout Democratic presidential primary.
During that campaign, Pasco GOP state committeeman Bill Bunting led the opposition to the tax. This time around, Bunting said he plans to discuss the issue with the Republican Executive Committee.
"If the money's being spent wisely, I think we're okay," he said. "If there's a gray area, I think there's a concern."
He commended supporters for putting the renewal on the November ballot, when all registered voters can cast a ballot. Last time, he said, opponents were "hoodwinked."
Commissioners have until Aug. 1 to forward a proposed ballot question to the Supervisor of Elections. The board would have to hold at least one public hearing on the topic and renew its agreements with the School Board and the cities. Chief Assistant County Administrator Michele Baker said commissioners likely would select which projects to fund with the new revenue.
"We want to be able to demonstrate the need (for the money) and how we were going to use it," she said.
So far, the school district has spent $172 million, including bonds that must be repaid with future penny collections. Of the county portion, an estimated $73 million is set aside for road improvements, $28 million would go toward fire and law enforcement equipment and roughly $35 million is earmarked for environmental lands purchases.
The poll was conducted by Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies, based in northern Virginia. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Lee Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Ray Gadd was a former assistant superintendent of Pasco schools. The original version of this article misstated his title.