Support to extend Penny for Pasco ran deep

Eight years ago, the Penny for Pasco sales tax squeaked out a victory thanks largely to central Pasco voters.

There was no such drama this year.

A precinct-level analysis of the election shows a broad and deep coalition of voters who endorsed another decade of the Penny, which raises money for school improvements, road projects, environmental land buys and other projects. The extension garnered support from nearly 70 percent of voters and won every precinct.

It's tough to describe the vote as anything but a landslide.

"It just seemed to be so easy the second go around," said Ray Gadd, a former school district administrator who helped run the first campaign. "It's just amazing."

Jennifer Seney, the county recycling coordinator who worked on both campaigns, remembers the effort slightly differently.

"We ran like we were losing and we were scared to death," she said. "I was just beside myself. To get 70 percent, it was just amazing."

Like the first Penny vote, support was split by geography. But it's only a matter of degree. Crystal Springs, the area with the lowest support for the referendum, still voted for the Penny by 58 percent. Meantime, support topped 75 percent in nine precincts.

Areas with the largest share of supporters were clustered in Land O'Lakes and Wesley Chapel, core northeast Pasco towns and newer neighborhoods along the Little Road corridor. Support dipped in old west Pasco, many Zephyrhills neighborhoods and rural north Pasco precincts.

How did advocates appeal to such a diverse group of voters?

"Dozens and dozens" of presentations to neighborhood and civic groups, said Hutch Brock, co-chairman of the Penny campaign.

"If you can educate them, they can take the reins from you," he said. "They can be the most informed at the cocktail party or at the ball club or at the church."

Projects tied to the tax appealed to a wide swath of voters, Brock said. For a soccer mom with three kids, he said, "her motivating factor is her school is going to be remodeled."

"If you're talking to a retiree who lives on a long stretch of road that needs an intersection improvement, they're going to like that idea," he said.

Business people like that the tax will help keep transportation fees down and provide an estimated $45 million for economic development to compete with Hillsborough and Pinellas.

Businesses ponied up big checks for the Penny. The political action committee supporting the tax raised $216,000, more than half of which came from 16 donations of $5,000 or more. Most came from firms tied to the development industry. One $40,000 check came from Covanta Energy Corp., which operates Pasco's waste-to-energy facility in Shady Hills.

GOP state committeeman Bill Bunting pointed to that fundraising as proof that pro-Penny forces could mount a formidable campaign. Unlike 2004, Bunting did not organize a concerted opposition to the tax. He voted against the renewal but focused most of his energy on turning out Pasco voters for Mitt Romney.

"I said, 'I'm staying focused on the Romney campaign. I'm not going to pick up another issue,' " he said. "The presidency was more important than the Penny."

Nearly every local elected official supported the tax. Many said success hinged on the tax paying for specific projects voters could point to, as opposed to ambiguous government programs.

"They can see the tangible results," said School Board member Allen Altman. When voters asked him about the plethora of ballot issues this year, he said, "The majority of them told me, 'You don't have to tell me about the Penny. I already know it's a good thing.' "

As in 2004, support didn't split along party lines.

Consider Holiday's Buena Vista neighborhood. It's a reliably Democratic precinct, with more than 56 percent of voters supporting President Barack Obama. Yet its support for the Penny was the sixth-lowest in the county on a percentage basis.

Conversely, four in five San Antonio voters supported the tax, the largest margin for the Penny. More than 62 percent of those voters also supported Romney.

Several members of the Republican Executive Committee supported the tax, according to REC member Peter Hanzel of Wesley Chapel. His only quibble about the measure is the money set aside to acquire environmental land.

"A lot of good came from it," he said. "For the most part, the money wasn't wasted."

Some conservatives are wary of the land-buying money, but a committed group of environmentalists see that as one of the Penny's chief benefits.

"I appreciate that they support some environmental funding," said banker Erica Wiggins, 24, who voted at the Land O'Lakes Community Center.

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@tampabay.com. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com.

The Covanta check

Covanta Energy Corp. donated $40,000 toward the pro-Penny campaign, nearly one-fifth of the group's total fundraising haul. Here's the story behind the contribution, according to Penny campaign member Jennifer Seney.

Supporters scrambled in the election's closing days to pay for one last flier to mail to voters. Such a mailing costs roughly $40,000. After poring over a list of potential donors, someone suggested Covanta.

Hutch Brock, who co-chaired the pro-Penny group, made the ask. Other members of the campaign wondered if he was nervous. Seney recalled him saying: "Hey, I'm a lawyer, I can ask anybody anything."

He made the pitch. "They all fell over and rolled onto the table," she said. "We had to revive them."

She added: "After they gave us that amount, we all fell over out of our chairs."

Company representatives could not be reached Friday afternoon for comment about the contribution. Seney said Covanta has operated in Pasco since 1989, and considers itself a longtime partner with Pasco that has invested a lot in the community.

"I think they looked at each other and said, how can we not help?" she said.

Support to extend Penny for Pasco ran deep 11/17/12 [Last modified: Saturday, November 17, 2012 1:53pm]

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