Thursday, December 14, 2017
Opinion

Bowen: Hernando commission decisions undermine sales tax pitch

Supporters of Hernando County's proposed Penny for Progress, a one-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax that could be shared among the school district, county government and city of Brooksville, frequently point to the successes in Pasco County as the political goal to emulate.

Pasco voters approved the sales tax increase in 2004 to pay for schools, roads, public safety and environmental preservation. In 2012, the electorate blessed the tax for another decade with nearly 70 percent of the turnout supporting renewal. Even former objectors acknowledged the benefits of less-crowded schools, safer roads, preserved green space and new ambulances, patrol cars and heart defibrillators.

The Hernando proponents have picked up on some of the Pasco basics: Plan on a political action committee to hire a consultant and finance a campaign; appoint a citizens oversight panel to scrutinize how the tax revenue is spent; provide a specific project list; and build support among the business community, chamber of commerce, builders association and Board of Realtors.

What they flubbed was the necessary prep work at the Hernando County Commission, which has made a string of decisions benefiting theirs or special interests while undermining public faith in their stewardship. Over the past year, a board majority rejected impact fees — one time charges on new construction — to pay for schools; adopted greatly discounted impact fees for transportation that still haven't started; overspent to acquire 4 acres for a future road that doesn't appear on the county's long-range map until 2035, and recently lifted a voter-approved tax cap for mosquito control.

The lack of political foresight is indicative of a commission (and business community?) that isn't truly committed to investing in Hernando County's quality of life. In particular, the kowtowing to the home builders on impact fees and ignoring the will of the voters on the mosquito control tax cap has opened the commission to deserved public criticism.

"I think you shot yourself in the foot by not having impact fees,'' Chuck Gordon, a frequent commentator at Hernando Commission meetings, told the board last week.

It's a logical observation and one the county will have to overcome if it wants to persuade the Hernando School Board to authorize a joint campaign and single referendum in November. Otherwise, voters will consider two ballot questions, one for schools and one for the county and city of Brooksville. Each will ask for approval of a half-cent sales tax for infrastructure. The school board is scheduled to be briefed on the county's proposal next week.

If Hernando supporters want to repeat the favorable outcome achieved in Pasco, they should pay attention to the successful time line and astute political calculations used there when voters first passed the Penny for Pasco in March 2004:

• In August 2002, then-school superintendent John Long announced the Pasco School District would seek a proposed a sales tax referendum in 2004 to build new schools. The news came just 15 months after county commissioners adopted an education impact fee to help offset the costs of growth. Long invited the county and six cities to join the campaign and the end result was the Penny for Pasco.

• In July 2003, nine months before the referendum, the Pasco School Board voted to switch health insurance carriers to save 2.3 percent on a $27 million contract. The message? You can't ask the public for a new tax until you've demonstrated that you've already scrounged for every available dollar.

• In January 2004, two months before the March referendum, the county's transportation impact fees jumped 50 percent to $3,316 per single-family home and the commercial impact fees for businesses identified as major traffic generators, such as fast-food restaurants and drive-through banks, tripled and in some instances quadrupled. The higher fees were projected to bring in $257 million over 10 years, more than triple the amount raised by the sales tax for transportation. The commission's impact fee vote again carried a strong signal to the voters: Penny for Pasco won't be used to underwrite the cost of growth.

The Pasco road project list accompanying the sales tax included improvements to the county's most dangerous highway, U.S. 19; its most traffic-snarled road, State Road 54 at Interstate 75; and to unsafe intersections across the county. It added turn lanes, removed sharp curves, built bus shelters and created a bike trail. The list specifically excluded building new road lanes to add traffic capacity. Those were financed by the higher impact fees.

In Hernando County? The draft list of sales tax transportation projects earmarked $48 million, more than half of the expected new revenue, to add lanes to two routes, Powell Road and Barclay Avenue. So much for not shifting the cost of growth.

The blueprint for a successful sales tax campaign does exist in Pasco, but advocates for progress in Hernando would do well to spend more time studying its intricacies if they hope to achieve the same results.

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