The city of New Port Richey's vague spending list for a renewed Penny for Pasco sales tax is understandable — for now. The city is confronting a budget shortfall that is expected to require employee layoffs later this year as property values continue to decline and the redevelopment agency attempts to dig out of debt.
Clearly, more pressing financial decisions take precedence over developing a capital spending plan that wouldn't begin until 2015. It's understood that it is difficult to devise a vehicle replacement list without knowing how many city employees will be on the payroll in two years and how many of those job descriptions will require vehicles.
However, the ambiguity shouldn't be permanent. The lack of specificity can generate public questioning) as well as provide fodder along the campaign trail leading to the Nov. 6 ballot question. Already, a county commission candidate is questioning if the local governments and Pasco County School District need a full penny-on-the-dollar tax for capital construction.
But, more important than calming candidate politicking, New Port Richey residents are entitled to as much information as possible. Voters should know, for instance, if new sidewalks, utility lines, or business development via ecotourism is the highest priority over the next decade. The city, so far, identified intended categorical uses like public safety, transportation and recreation without naming specific projects or locations.
The city isn't alone in this situation. Pasco County is still working to define exactly how it would use $45 million over 10 years for economic development, but expects to have more definitive information available to the public prior to the referendum.
It would be prudent for New Port Richey to try to do likewise after its new fiscal year begins Oct. 1. Without a more specific spending list, council needs to ensure future public hearings will be scheduled as it comes time to actually start allocating the money.
Voters will consider in a November referendum whether to extend the tax for 10 years after the current tax expires at the end of 2014. Projects for the renewed tax call for the county and School District to each receive $226 million through 2025 with the six city governments sharing $55 million based on population. For New Port Richey, the county's largest city, it would mean $18 million over the 10-year tax.
The strongest justification for renewing the sales tax is the astute financial stewardship exercised by elected officials and staff in spending the proceeds from the current penny tax. That money built schools, made roads safer, preserved environmentally sensitive land and paid for public safety equipment.
There is strong public faith in the oversight of tax spending because of past performance. Voters can see tangible results of new classrooms, safer intersections, open green space, and defibrillators in public buildings absent cost overruns.
Transparency is key to sustaining that public faith. The more details voters have to consider before November, the better.