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Tax is on tip of many tongues

PENNY SERENADE: Mindful of the upcoming referendum on extending the Penny for Pinellas sales tax, more than one person who spoke at Friday's opening ceremonies of the new Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center felt the need to mention that the building's $53.7-million construction cost had been paid for using Penny for Pinellas funds.

The current Penny for Pinellas program expires in 2000, but local government officials are hoping that next March voters will agree to extend it another 10 years, to raise $1.36-billion.

So Chief Judge Susan Schaeffer mentioned the role Penny for Pinellas played in getting the justice center built. So did Commissioner Robert Stewart and Sheriff Everett Rice.

When they were done, Commission Chairwoman Sallie Parks quipped, "You understand, we were giving an award to the speakers who mentioned Penny for Pinellas the most times."

NOT THE IDEAL WAKE-UP CALL: The opening of the new Criminal Justice Center was supposed to take place in October, but construction delays pushed it back to January, then to April and finally to the end of this month.

In her speech Friday, Judge Schaeffer told of how county officials would repeatedly assure her that the construction was right on schedule _ until she would get a fateful phone call from Carl Barron, the county's director of general services, to tell her the opening would have to be delayed. Every time there was a delay, Barron was the one bearing bad news.

Schaeffer told the crowd she experienced a moment of panic the night before the grand opening.

"Last night at 3 o'clock, I sat up and thought I had a phone call from Carl," Schaeffer confessed. "But it didn't happen."

A MOVING EXPERIENCE: To say the company Pinellas County hired to relocate the employees of the old criminal courts complex into the new Criminal Justice Center last week was not up to the job might be an understatement.

Some movers didn't pass a criminal background check, and at one point county officials threatened to fire the company for hampering the move.

Consider, then, the plight of Circuit Judge Frank Quesada, who adorned his old office in the rat-ridden Juvenile Court Building with expensive antique furniture he bought when he was a successful private attorney.

When Quesada saw the movers trying to load a secretary's desk into a truck and saw that desk fall off the ramp and hit the asphalt, he went over to the movers to deliver a message: "When you get to the ball-and-claw leg, rope-edged, mahogany Chippendale partner desk, don't touch it."

Quesada recruited his son and a friend, and they moved the desk themselves.

FAST DRIVERS AND WIT: St. Petersburg City Council Chairman Edward Cole has never been the sort to bow to political correctness, but during a discussion on speeding enforcement last week Cole all but threw diplomacy to the wind. "Not to be a chauvinist," the chairman cheerfully chimed in, "but the people that pass me with a heavy foot are females."

Council member Leslie Curran didn't miss a beat: "Maybe, that's to get away from you, Ed."

A MILESTONE: The oldest son of City Manager Betty Deptula recently was ordained a Catholic priest. Stanley L. Deptula is now the assistant pastor at Sacred Heart Church in Moline, Ill. Recently, he said Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Dunedin, and the big event was attended by several city officials who chipped in and got him a city clock.

The new priest returned to his parish, where the clock adorns his office. In a thank you note to commissioners, he offered a blessing and signed his name. But there was a final reference to his mom, who in her 20s spent seven years in a convent.

"P.S." the son wrote. "Be nice to the city manager."

IMPRESS YOUR FRIENDS: Hey, Clearwater residents: Here are a few numbers to throw around next time you want to show off your knowledge of city government. The City Commission requested them for recent discussions of the city budget.

Did you know, for example, that Countryside residents will owe about $3.6-million in city property taxes this year? Compare that to Clearwater Beach ($2.3-million), Sand Key ($1.9-million) and Island Estates ($1.2-million). The rest of the city weighs in with about $10-million.

More fun facts:

Religious groups now own 221 tax-exempt parcels valued at $118-million. If they paid taxes, the city would reap an extra $602,529.

Also, more than 1,300 properties in Clearwater are so low in value that they don't have to pay any property taxes. But together they are valued at $27.5-million.

NO SUCH THING: "Morton Plant Mease Health Care will sponsor a free Kid Fair on Saturday, August 3," read a news release sent out last week announcing a fair at Countryside Mall on Saturday.

No, there won't be a booth where you can sign up to give away your kid.

Hospital spokeswoman Emily Stehle says what the release meant to say was that children will get immunizations, hearing and speech screenings and identification packages for free.

Ask any parent: There's no such thing as free kid.

A FAIRLY WELL-ATTENDED DINNER: Key Republican leaders in Pinellas County have made it perfectly clear that they don't approve of the Citizens for Fair Campaign Practices, the bipartisan group that seeks to eliminate mudslinging from local races.

Apparently, many prominent Republicans disagree.

Among the GOP faithful who made an appearance at the group's annual banquet this month: county Commissioners Sallie Parks (who served as emcee) and Bob Stewart; Sheriff Everett Rice; Reps. R. Z. "Sandy" Safley and John Morroni; Pinellas GOP vice chairman Dale MacKenzie Gross; state Sen. Jack Latvala; and School Board members Lee Benjamin, Andrea Thacker and Susan Latvala.

On the Democratic side, Democratic chairman Paul Hitchens, vice chairwoman Winnie Foster, Rep. Mary Brennan and former Sen. Jeanne Malchon also attended.

THE DIRT: As the sun sets on Commissioner Charles Rainey's 29-year-reign as the District 2 commissioner, could some be losing respect for their elder?

Commissioners marveled Tuesday at the staying power of two county highway department employees who received awards for 30 years of safe driving.

"You've been here longer than dirt," said County Administrator Fred Marquis.

"That's right, they've been here longer than Commissioner Rainey," said commission chairwoman Sallie Parks.

The commissioners, including Rainey, laughed.

_ Staff writers Jen Pilla, Craig Pittman, Adam Smith, G.G. Rigsby, Curtis Krueger and Thomas C. Tobin contributed to this report.

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