Monday, April 23, 2018
Opinion

C.T. Bowen: Try selling joint sales tax plan to jilted School Board

Hernando County Administrator Len Sossamon has a dilemma — his own bosses.

After county commissioners assumed the role of playground bully and kicked sand in the faces of their School Board counterparts, Sossamon wonders if they can all play nice together for the good of the community.

Two words: Fat chance.

Even Sossamon's allies concur.

"Why would the school system want to do anything with the county at this point?'' asked Commissioner Diane Rowden.

Sossamon is in a tough position. He is compiling a list of improved roads, expanded utilities, preserved green space, larger libraries and better parks that could be pursued if Hernando County adopted an infrastructure surtax — that is the state bureaucratic term for an additional sales tax. Sossamon plans to roll out his Penny for Progress idea next month when he meets with the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce.

A half-cent sales tax is projected to raise about $78 million over the next 10 years. The sales tax, despite being regressive in nature, is an efficient way to pay for capital projects that would remain on the drawing board if local governments had to rely on property and gasoline taxes exclusively.

The catch, though, is that voters previously approved a half-cent sales tax for Hernando schools in 2004 and the School Board plans to ask for a renewal this year. Ten years ago, voters rejected a separate half-cent sales tax increase for the county. That explains the desire by Sossamon to ask voters to consider the tax referendum as a single penny-on-the-dollar question.

Certainly, a unified front has political benefits. It helped ensure passage of the Penny for Pasco sales tax increase in Pasco County in 2004 and the successful and overwhelming renewal in 2012. Money there is targeted for schools, safer roads, preserved land, public safety equipment and economic development incentives. The diverse spending formula is based on the 1996 Community Investment Tax in Hillsborough County in which voters agreed to tax themselves to finance Raymond James Stadium, but also to build schools, utility and drainage systems, roads, jails, fire stations, parks and other public services.

Sossamon's problem is his timing. Earlier this month, the commission, with Rowden dissenting, denied the school district's request for a new, higher impact fee on new home construction to help finance a new school, upgrade technology, maintain existing buildings and pay off the debt accumulated to build the current inventory of classrooms. It left a $61 million hole in the district's 10-year capital improvement plan, which makes voter renewal of the half-cent sales tax even more imperative.

So how welcoming do you think the School Board will be to a joint tax referendum with the folks in the Hernando County Government Center?

"I'm really disappointed with the impact fee vote,'' said Hernando School Board Chairman Gus Guadagnino. "I have no desire to tack on (a sales tax) with them.''

And it's not just political payback. It's political pragmatism.

The School Board will be campaigning for a renewal. Members can rightly say, "we're not raising your taxes'' and they can point to the school district's stewardship of past voter-approved sales tax initiatives — the 1998 referendum that built the Nature Coast Technical Center and the 2004 tax intended to help build six new schools to ease crowding.

Hernando County does not have that luxury. It will be campaigning for a tax increase and it doesn't have a sales tax track record to highlight. It can, however, point to its previous environmental land stewardship from a separate, voter-approved property tax.

More importantly, there aren't indications yet that the commission will strongly support a sales tax referendum. Rowden is the top advocate, having pushed the idea as soon as she won election in 2012. Commissioner Wayne Dukes is on record supporting a sales tax for ambulance services as part of a discarded tax swap, saying he liked the idea of nonresidents helping to finance public safety in Hernando County. (Prior sales tax campaigns have estimated 20 percent of the revenue is derived from people living elsewhere.) Commissioner Nick Nicholson has said he favors a sales tax for transportation.

The sales pitch, meanwhile, can't rest exclusively with public officials.

In Pasco County, for instance, citizen advocates formed a political action committee which raised and spent $225,000 for polling, public relations, consulting and direct mail advertising during the 2012 renewal. Figure a similar effort in Hernando County would cost about $75,000. If it successfully mimicked the contribution list in Pasco, then home builders, developers, large land owners, land-use attorneys and engineering firms should be willing to donate.

Of course, that still doesn't resolve the county's issue with the School Board.

"Why would we want to chance it by attaching to the county?'' asked Guadagnino. "I think they've got a hard sell.''

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