Eight years ago, county voters seized the chance to shape the county's future by choosing to invest in a new tax that would make Pasco a better place to live. The opportunity presents itself again on the Nov. 6 ballot, but this time the Penny for Pasco also is intended to enhance the county as a place to live and work.
The original penny-on-the-dollar sales tax expires in 2014 and voters are being asked to consider renewing it for another decade beginning in 2015. The county and school district would split 90 percent of the roughly $500 million raised; six cities would split the remaining 10 percent. But a key difference in the funding allocation this time around is the county plans to set aside a fifth of its share (a projected $45 million) for a jobs and economic development trust fund.
The money can be used for workforce training, incentives to lure new industries or to help offset the infrastructure costs of new employment centers. It is a significant bankroll for the county to use as it seeks to curb the live-here, work-there lifestyle that sees tens of thousands of workers leave Pasco everyday for jobs elsewhere.
Likewise, the Pasco School District, not facing the growth pressures of adding classrooms as it did in 2004, plans to give a face-lift to its schools facilities. The district would upgrade technology at 48 schools, remodel 1970s-era school buildings, and refurbish others to bolster career academies. It would add a health academy at Zephyrhills High and a modernized vocational space at the Fred K. Marchman Education Center. The aim is to make the physical plant of the district ready for the demands of the 21st Century educational system that puts a premium on on-line teaching and test-taking and also is tasked with producing a job-ready workforce.
Education and economic development are just two beneficiaries. The cities' combined share of $50 million over 10 years is money that can pay for infrastructure upgrades that have been delayed if not ignored completely by local budgets stunted by years of falling real estate values.
On the county level, Pasco will build 19 projects to improve traffic flow and safety with the largest being a new interchange at Interstate 75 and Overpass Road to provide better access to northern Wesley Chapel and ultimately Pasadena Hills.
Mass transit will receive a boost with money for replacement buses, bus bays along State Road 54 and to acquire land for a transfer station in the U.S. 19 corridor. Miles of bicycle and pedestrian paths will extend across the county including a long-sought-after extension of the Withlacoochee Trail and a Bi-County trail — following the route of a long-abandoned highway proposal of the same name – that will link Trinity to Northeast Pasco.
Matching the investment in economic development, the county also will set aside $45 million over 10 years for public safety and the same amount for acquiring and preserving environmental land. The public safety allocations include new digital radios for first responders, a rebuilt fire station in Wesley Chapel and new Sheriff's Office vehicles and laptop computers.
The money for the county's Environmental Land Acquisition and Management Program, commonly called ELAMP, is targeted to continue the effort of preserving 6,200 acres considered critical to linking existing preserves like Starkey Wilderness Park, Cross Bar Well Field and Cypress Swamp.
One of the benefits available to the electorate in 2012 is the ability to project future implementation by scrutinizing the track record of the original Penny for Pasco. The sales tax — known by state law as an infrastructure surcharge — helped curb school crowding; made dangerous intersections safer; relieved traffic congestion through Wesley Chapel; financed new safety standards for U.S. 19; paid for fire trucks, ambulances, patrol cars, and officers' laptops; put portable defibrillators in public buildings; saved coastal land from development and provided land as a corridor for wildlife to traverse the county.
Former critics are now vocal supporters. A citizens' oversight committee annually lauds the performance of the school district in its stewardship. And, even the tiniest differentiation on the county level — like using the money to buy a replacement motorcycle instead of patrol car — is debated and voted upon by county commissioners in an open meeting. There simply are no surprises nor critical audits.
The Penny for Pasco is a proven quality of life enhancement for the community. Voters should continue this investment for a diversified economy, modern schools, safer roads, more green space, better equipped public safety workers and additional recreation. The Tampa Bay Times strongly recommends voters say "yes'' to the 2015 Penny for Pasco.