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Voters get a penny for their thoughts

Pinellas County voters will get their two cents in Tuesday on whether to extend for another decade the 1 percent sales tax known as the Penny for Pinellas.

In 1989, voters approved _ by a razor-thin margin _ a referendum to raise the sales tax in Pinellas from 6 to 7 cents on the dollar to pay for roads, parks and drainage projects.

The tax rate will return to 6 percent in February 2000 unless voters approve the 10-year extension.

If the referendum fails Tuesday, county and city officials will be wondering how to pay for $1.4-billion in infrastructure projects they have planned. Those projects include $15-million for an extension of the Pinellas Trail, $80-million for jail expansion, $23-million for a new Memorial Causeway Bridge in Clearwater and $14-million for widening part of Ulmerton Road.

Officials for the county, which gets about half of the revenue from the penny tax, say they would have to increase property taxes by about $2 for every $1,000 valuation to raise as much money as the sales tax would.

But no one is suggesting that they would do that.

"There will be some very serious choices to deal with if it doesn't pass," said County Commissioner Sallie Parks.

County Administrator Fred Marquis said some of the projects on the county's list still would get done, some wouldn't get done and some would get done more slowly than planned.

"It would be a matter of reordering our priorities," he said.

Marquis said the penny tax is the best way to raise the money because unlike property taxes, it's paid by tourists as well. The county's estimates show out-of-town visitors would pay about 35 percent of the tax.

But Darryl Paulson, a Palm Harbor resident and University of South Florida government professor, said a sales tax is unfair because it is regressive, placing more of a burden on the poor because they spend a higher percentage of their income than the rich.

Seminole City Council member Paul Trexler opposes the tax because he objects to using county taxpayer money on projects that would otherwise be done by the state _ including widening Ulmerton Road and building a new Memorial Causeway Bridge.

But Marquis said the county would have to wait several years for the state to fund those improvements, which he said are needed immediately.

"When you're stuck in traffic on Ulmerton Road, you don't care who pays to fix it," Marquis said. "You just want it fixed."

The sales tax money has gone to pay for some popular projects _ including funding the Pinellas Trail and making the Bayside Bridge a non-toll facility. But it also has paid for controversial projects such as Clearwater's $14-million Harborview Center.

And while St. Petersburg officials have kept penny funds out of controversial projects, Paulson said that having the 1 percent sales tax has given the city financial freedom to pay for the ill-fated retail district known as Bay Plaza, Tropicana Field and the Florida International Museum.

And, he said, many of the smaller municipalities, which get a cut of the tax money based on their populations, have begun depending upon it to fund the types of projects other communities fund with property taxes.

"This was supposed to be a one-time tax, and they've become dependent on it," Paulson said. "Who's to say they won't come back and ask for it for a third time and a fourth time?"

By scheduling the election three years ahead of when the tax will expire, county officials have left themselves enough time to make a second run at getting voter approval. Parks said that wouldn't be likely, though.

"I think there would have to be a clear mandate from the community for us to do that," Parks said.

County officials have spent the last three months stumping for the tax at hundreds of meetings of chambers of commerce, civic groups and neighborhood associations.

A group of businesspeople who formed a political action committee called the Penny PAC have raised more than $90,000 in cash and in-kind contributions, including 30 billboards donated by Eller Media. Other contributions came mostly from local law firms, banks, land developers, paving companies, general contractors and utilities contractors _ many of whom stand to directly benefit if the tax extension is passed.

The county has spent about $90,000 on its own campaign, with the bulk of the money going to pay for a newspaper insert that was mailed to more than 430,000 households of registered voters last week. Ronnie Goodstein, the county's public service and information director, said the campaign has been purely informational.

But some think the county has crossed the line and used taxpayer money to promote the tax.

"My kids need books in their school," said Betsy Walker of Clearwater, who says she will vote against the tax. "I don't need a propaganda newspaper."

Goodstein said the county has an obligation to inform its residents.

"I'm taking suggestions," she said. "If anybody could think of a cheaper way to do it, we'd do it."

No formal opposition has emerged, except for a small band of activists who have spent a few bucks copying and faxing anti-sales-tax fliers.

But no formal opposition formed in 1989, either, and the tax passed by fewer than 400 votes. Because St. Petersburg voters overwhelmingly rejected the tax, its success was dependent on support from North Pinellas.

With St. Petersburg being the only municipality to have an election Tuesday, its support becomes critical to the tax's success.

"I think it's going to be close," said Rod Fischer, president of the Contractors and Builders Association and treasurer of the Penny PAC. "We're certainly not buying the champagne."