Penny for Pinellas: Voters overwhelmingly pass the tax for another decade

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After county and city officials spent months touting the Penny for Pinellas sales tax, voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved the program for another decade.

With all precincts reporting, about 83 percent of voters supported approving the 1-cent-per-dollar sales tax. More than 168,000 voters weighed in on the tax, with almost 139,000 voting for it.

"It’s a great day for Pinellas County," commission chair Janet Long said about the landslide tax victory. "Clearly, the residents see the value in the Penny and the infrastructure it pays for."

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County government and Pinellas’ 24 cities will split an estimated $2 billion in revenue from 2020, when the tax was to expire, through 2030. Governments will use the money on an array of projects, such as sewer upgrades, road paving, recreation centers and equipment for first responders.

Projections indicate that 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.

As election day approached, elected officials pointed to Hurricane Irma as a big reason why voters should renew the next round of the tax program. The last round helped pay for 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 the 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 10 days.

The storm highlighted the importance of the tax and how it paid for facilities that protected county workers and residents in shelters, Long said.

"The Penny will continue to make Pinellas County beautiful for our grandchildren and decades to come," she said.

Commission vice chair Ken Welch agreed: "By renewing the Penny for Pinellas, our community has made a strong commitment to building a safe and sustainable Pinellas for generations to come."

Commissioner Pat Gerard said the county can now continue to upgrade roads and sewers and invest in economic development and affordable housing.

"It shows that people have a lot of confidence in their county commission and how we handle the resources," Gerard said.

Voters narrowly adopted the Penny tax in 1989. In 1997, they passed it in a landslide, It passed again in 2007 with 56 percent of the vote.

In the year leading up to Tuesday’s vote, the anti-tax foes that helped defeat the Greenlight Pinellas transportation sales tax in 2014 acknowledged they could not thwart the Penny tax renewal. Critics contend elected officials use the pot of money to complete ribbon-cutting projects that bolster their own reelection efforts.

Barb Haselden, a tax critic and 2018 commission candidate, said there was no organized support against the Penny like against Greenlight Pinellas in 2014.

"The county spent a year and undisclosed dollars with the pro-Penny campaign," she said. "No surprise at the outcome."

Unlike the 2014 transportation tax proposal, county and city officials could tout completed projects such as bridges, libraries and recreation centers that were built and paid for with the Penny tax.

In addition, officials developed a website to highlight past projects and erected signs in front of buildings, bridges, recreation centers to tell voters that the tax helped get them built.

Other selling points officials used to hawk the program: One-third of the revenue comes from tourists, and property taxes would likely increase if voters rejected the tax.

Cities, especially St. Petersburg, need money to repair failing sewer systems. A hurricane, a tropical storm and summer rains have overwhelmed St. Petersburg’s sewer system in the past two years, causing 200 million gallons of sewage to flow into streets and waterways.

Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente

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