Nearly five years ago, Pasco voters approved a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase to help finance schools, roads, public safety and environmental preservation. The vote came after a sometimes vitriolic debate surrounding unfounded suspicions of hidden agendas and ulterior motives, but the public deliberations also included a promise of accountability for the hundreds of millions of dollars in new capital spending.
The pledge was welcome and necessary, particularly since it came on the heels of a 2004 internal audit that revealed that Pinellas County government misled the public there by overstating the 10-year benefits of its Penny for Pinellas by $297 million.
Twice this month, public agencies in Pasco County demonstrated that they are acting accordingly to maintain public faith in their stewardship of Penny for Pasco.
The most recent example came before the Pasco County Commission, which receives 45 percent of the tax proceeds. One highly desirable dividend of the penny tax is the creation of the county's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Management Program, for buying and maintaining green space around the county as a way to protect natural resources and wildlife habitat.
Tuesday, commissioners considered acquiring property known as Beacon Square Scrub, 85 acres amid residential development north of Hudson Avenue and a quarter-mile east of U.S. 19 in Hudson. In September, developer D.R. Horton Inc. sold the land, valued by the Pasco Property Appraiser's Office at $1.6 million, to a Texas-based interest for $200,000.
The land is home to gopher tortoises and rare vegetation, and scrub-jays were spotted 1,500 feet away, meaning it could become a habitat for that protected species. The county correctly describes the parcel as a wildlife island in a highly urbanized area.
By all accounts, it is worthy of protection. Except for one little detail. In presenting the Penny for Pasco campaign to voters in 2004, the county's stated intent was to protect land in environmental planning units or so-called critical linkages — undeveloped land between existing preserves around parks and well fields. Standalone patches in Hudson don't meet that definition.
County Administrator John Gallagher correctly reminded the board of its promises of how the penny tax would be spent and said deviations could bring future criticism. The board concurred and directed staff to investigate alternative funding, declining to use Penny for Pasco dollars to make a low-ball offer of $200,000 or even to request a new appraisal. It was the right call.
Three weeks earlier, the other major beneficiary of the sales tax increase, the Pasco School District, heard the annual report from its citizens oversight committee, membership of which includes people who originally opposed Penny for Pasco.
The committee called the school district's stewardship outstanding. Tax proceeds were used to build two elementary schools and a middle school, partially fund construction of Anclote High School, and complete renovations at eight other schools. So far, the district has completed 55 of the 100 school improvement projects publicized during the campaign.
"Some may still argue about the tax,'' the oversight committee reported Feb. 3, "but they cannot claim that the promises haven't been kept.''
Indeed. In this time of declining revenue, and a year after passage of Amendment One amid strong criticism of local government finances, Penny for Pasco continues to be a worthwhile investment and money well spent.