Nearly six years after voters approved a sales tax increase to build new schools and roads, preserve land and buy public safety equipment, it is time to start thinking about its renewal.
Just ask Dave Thompson, the outgoing chairman of the school district's Penny for Pasco oversight committee. He was no fan of the 10-year sales tax increase when it went before voters in 2004, but changed his mind after observing the astute financial stewardship afterward and the overwhelming benefits to the community.
"In order to stay ahead of the curve someone is going to have to start planning for an extension of the Penny for Pasco,'' Thompson told the Pasco School Board Tuesday evening.
Indeed. Leadership is key. The late John Long, then superintendent of schools, began pushing for the Penny for Pasco in earnest in the summer of 2002, more than two years before the planned election date that was later advanced to March 2004. Long and his subordinates guided an extensive political campaign using fundraising, political consulting, direct mail advertising, public presentations, debates and the rollout of a list of projects to be completed if voters approved.
If there was a legitimate criticism of that sales tax campaign, it was the decision to hold the referendum during the presidential primary, rather than on a general election ballot. That concern can be muted in the campaign for renewal by picking a more accommodating date —- November 2012.
Waiting until 2014 is simply unworkable. There is no countywide spring election that year and the August primaries are too late in the government budget cycle. There are no county elections in 2013 and the expense of a special election is cost prohibitive, which pushes the ballot referendum for extending the sales tax to 2012.
Proponents can point to legitimate reasons for seeking a non-general election date, including not wanting to dilute the debate with other statewide referendums on proposed constitutional amendments. There also is the unstated reason of hoping to draw only motivated voters more likely to approve the tax. But, those strategies should be set aside because the renewal campaign has something much more significant to highlight this time around — a superb track record.
For the school district, the one-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax increase generated more than $58 million through Nov. 1, 2009, and helped build Double Branch and Oakstead elementary schools, Crews Lake Middle School and Anclote High School. The district bonded the proceeds — with future income slated to pay off that debt — enabling it to do extensive renovation work elsewhere, including at Stewart Middle School in Zephyrhills. The sales tax is a key component of the district's capital plan that has brought the construction of 30 new schools over the past dozen years to handle a student body that has grown 46 percent to more than 67,000 children.
The county, meanwhile, used the dollars to help the state Department of Transportation with the ongoing improvements to I-75 over County Road 54, to begin upgrades to U.S. 19 and to rebuild dangerous intersections locally. It began preserving environmentally sensitive land through its eLAMP program and acquired patrol cars, police computers, fire trucks, ambulances, and portable defibrillators.
Simply put, the Penny for Pasco has allowed agencies to better provide for a safer county with protected green space and less crowded schools. Still, more work needs to be done. The school district continues to rely on portable classrooms to ease crowding, its current five-year plan includes a new elementary school in Hudson for which there is no funding, maintenance dollars are lacking and the School Board is pushing enhanced classroom technology.
There should be no reluctance by elected office-holders to show political courage this time around, but Thompson and other oversight committee members are correct: Planning for renewal needs to begin soon.