For just one example of how the Penny for Pinellas benefits everyone in the county, remember Hurricane Irma. Storm efforts were coordinated from the $82 million Public Safety Complex in mid Pinellas that was built three years ago to withstand a Category 5 hurricane and paid for by the sales tax. Hundreds of other examples — parks, sidewalks, roads, fire stations — of the benefits are spread throughout the county, and voters should extend the Penny for Pinellas for another 10 years.
Signs are popping up all over pointing out projects paid for by the 1-cent sales tax, and it's important to remind voters how much that revenue has contributed to the quality of life throughout Pinellas. Over the years, the Penny for Pinellas has helped pay for amenities such as the Pinellas Trail and improvements to parks such as Fort De Soto. It's also paid for more than 2,000 acres of new parks and preserves, major infrastructure such as the Bayside Bridge and more than 1,000 miles of resurfaced roads. Overall, the money has been used to make smart investments in long-term projects that make Pinellas a better place.
The Penny for Pinellas has been successful because the proceeds are fairly distributed between the county and the cities, the tangible benefits are obvious and elected officials are held accountable for following through on their spending plans. Voters first approved the tax in 1989, and they renewed it for another 10 years in 1997 and 2007. Now it's time to renew it again to cover 2020 through 2030.
The tax adds 1 cent to the state's 6-cent sales tax. The extra penny on a dollar is charged only on the first $5,000 of a purchase, and essentials like food and medicine are not taxed. About one-third of the revenue generated by the sales tax is paid by tourists and visitors, and the Penny for Pinellas now covers more than 70 percent of the cost of all local government capital projects. If it disappears, there is no way the county and cities could raise property taxes high enough to make up the $2 billion the penny is expected to raise in the next decade.
The county, which would receive just over half of the revenue, would spend the largest share of its money — 45 percent — on improving roads and bridges, big intersections such as the one at Belcher Road and Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, and sidewalks and trails. The next biggest slice — 20 percent — would go to water quality projects, flood prevention and sewers. There also would be money for libraries and community centers, from East Lake to Tierra Verde.
In St. Petersburg, where the Penny for Pinellas is paying for a new police headquarters now under construction, $90 million of the $326 million that the extended tax would generate would help pay for improvements to the sewage system. Money also would be allocated to affordable housing efforts, new fire trucks and police cars, and new recreation centers. Clearwater, which would receive more than $141 million from the extended tax, plans to spend the money in areas ranging from athletic fields to the beach marina to a new downtown parking garage.
It's clear that the Penny for Pinellas pays both for amenities and for essentials such as roads and drainage projects. It's clear the tax money makes Pinellas a far more desirable place to live, work and play. And it's clear that local governments already face the potential loss of millions in revenue from a 2018 constitutional amendment that would increase the homestead exemption.
The Penny for Pinellas has been a wise investment for decades, and it would continue to improve the quality of life throughout the county. In the Nov. 7 referendum on extending the Penny for Pinellas, the Tampa Bay Times recommends voting Yes.