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Debate on mayoral race, penny tax ends today

Three months of debate over the meaning of leadership in this city come to a close today in what again seems to be a squeaker of a mayor's race, while countywide, Pinellas voters choose whether to extend a 10-year penny sales tax.

Few St. Petersburg politicos are predicting a winner in the mayor's race with any certainty. The choice is between Mayor David Fischer, the incumbent boasting of bringing tangible quality of life improvements to St. Petersburg, and political newcomer and retired Army Gen. Bill Klein, who argues that the city deserves a stronger leader and more accountability.

This election is precedent-setting because it is the first time in roughly 60 years that voters will knowingly elect a "strong mayor." Four years ago, in addition to narrowly electing Fischer, voters decided to end their city manager form of government and instead make the mayor the elected chief administrator.

The Penny for Pinellas is a 1 percent sales tax that voters countywide are being asked to extend for another 10 years, much like the half-cent sales tax recently approved by Hillsborough voters.

Unlike Hillsborough's tax, touted as a way to pay for a new home for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers among other things, the Penny for Pinellas will pay for $1.4-billion in roads, parks, sewer lines and stormwater drainage systems. Because none of those items have the high profile of a football stadium, officials say strong voter turnout is key to its success.

A 10-year penny sales tax was approved by voters by a narrow margin in 1989.