Saturday, May 26, 2018
Politics

Push for passage of penny sales tax set to begin in Hernando

BROOKSVILLE — With the primary election now in the rearview mirror, the campaign to sell a penny sales tax to Hernando County voters on the Nov. 4 ballot is about to get going in earnest.

And the group leading the push already has amassed a sizable war chest of donations: $154,000.

In the coming days and weeks, there will be supportive postcards and fliers sent through the mail, yard signs and billboards, and an online presence in the form of a Facebook page and a soon-to-be launched website.

Members of the Penny for Projects group, the political action committee directing the joint county/school district sales-tax effort, will be out in force, speaking with community organizations, school groups and anyone else willing to listen.

"We're running the Penny for Projects as a candidate — we're following the same procedures," said John Druzbick, a member of the committee and a former county commissioner and School Board member.

The school district is also taking steps to educate voters, creating an informational video and distributing informational materials to students and parents.

The sales tax organization has hired a Bradenton consulting firm, the Nolan Group, to help run the campaign and formulate a marketing plan. So far, the Penny for Projects committee has spent nearly $25,000 on the Nolan Group's services, according to campaign expenditure records.

The organization faces a potentially stiff head wind from voters opposed to new taxes and those who believe the county should have first pursued other forms of revenue, include impact fees on new construction.

At a recent School Board meeting, Chairman Gus Guadagnino said he has heard some troubling things that give him concern about whether the sales tax will pass.

"It's kind of scary what's out there as far as their feeling about the tax," Guadagnino told the board. "There's things out there that are just not true; there's some things that are true."

Anthony Palmieri, a frequent speaker at commission and School Board meetings, is one of the people who has yet to be convinced to support the sales tax.

His opposition began about the time the county decided to pursue a half-cent tax. He also did not support the School Board's decision to merge its own half-cent sales tax proposal with the county's.

He believes the county missed out on an opportunity to collect millions in revenue from impact fees, all because it wanted to please special interest groups.

He said he is less opposed to the school district's effort, even though he says previous board members promised that the current half-cent sales tax for schools, which expires at the end of the year, would be the last.

At this week's commission meeting, Palmieri also questioned the makeup of the Penny for Projects committee. Once government officials are lifted out of the membership, he said, the committee is solely comprised of builders, Realtors and members of Hernando Progress — some of the same people who have opposed impact fees.

"Those are the people who control you guys,'' he told commissioners.

Druzbick acknowledged some challenges ahead. But he said the benefits of the sales tax, which could bring in roughly $174 million over 10 years to the school district and county, are numerous.

The school district plans to devote the majority of its revenue to the purchase of new technology, including replacing the district's aging computers and putting a computer tablet in every student's hands. That project is estimated to cost about $62.4 million over 10 years.

The district would not be able to do that without the increased revenue from a sales tax, said Walter Paschke, the district's network coordinator.

"There is no money in the budget devoted to that now," Paschke said.

The district also plans to use roughly $22.7 million for school roof renovations and the replacement of air-handling systems.

A majority of the roofs on schools are approaching the end of their life-span, he said. That was a particularly big issue this past school year at Westside Elementary, which had a leaky roof and needs $4.2 million for a new roof and air-handling system

"If the penny is not passed, there are going to be some very, very difficult times for the school district," Druzbick said.

The county is looking at roughly $80.8 million for projects, including road construction and sidewalks, economic development, countywide broadband, and a customs facility and a runway extension at Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport. The city of Brooksville would get about $8.3 million.

Druzbick said a number of the county's projects would directly benefit the school district, helping to alleviate traffic problems around schools.

Penny for Projects committee member John Mitten, who owns a Chick-fil-A restaurant in Hernando, stressed that the sales tax is all about investing in the future of Hernando. He said the county needs to be more competitive if it wants to bring in new businesses with high-paying jobs.

He said the tax is a chance to be "proactive for our children's and grandchildren's job sake."

Mitten stressed that all of the money raised through the sales tax is going to be spent in Hernando and that there will be oversight committees in place to monitor the spending.

"We just think that's important," he said. "(Residents) need to have a report card given to them showing them exactly how it is done."

He added: "Every taxpayer dollar is important and needs to be spent with stewardship."

Reporter Barbara Behrendt contributed to this report. Contact Danny Valentine at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. Follow @HernandoTimes.

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