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Turnout is key to extension of penny sales tax

Many of the voters who go to the polls today to decide the fate of the countywide 1 percent sales tax won't have too much trouble finding their polling places.

This will be the second time in less than two months that they've been there.

Today's Penny for Pinellas vote comes on the heels of local government elections in 16 municipalities, leaving some worried that only the most ardent opponents or supporters of a 10-year extension of the tax will actually go to the trouble of voting again.

Supervisor of Elections Dot Ruggles says she is expecting 40 percent to 45 percent of the registered voters to turn out in St. Petersburg, the only place in Pinellas where there's also a municipal election today.

But, as for the rest of Pinellas County, expecting a 30 percent showing would be optimistic, she said.

Richard Scher, a political science professor at the University of Florida, said a low turnout portends trouble for the tax, which voters approved by a narrow margin in 1989. It will expire in February 2000 if voters don't approve a 10-year extension today.

"Unless proponents have made a really good case, opponents are going to be more likely to vote," Scher said. "And that's a tough case to make _ that government needs more money."

Scher said the recent voter approval of a half-cent sales tax in Hillsborough doesn't necessarily indicate that voters in Pinellas will do the same.

Hillsborough's tax, in large part, was touted as a way to pay for a new home for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Penny for Pinellas will go to pay for $1.4-billion in roads, parks, sewer lines and stormwater drainage systems, none of which have the high-profile of a football stadium.

"It's one thing to say, "We need a better football team,' " he said. "It's quite another to say, "We need more sewers.' "

But the tax has been supported by a glossy educational campaign paid for with $80,000 in county taxpayer money, and it has been supplemented by a $100,000 effort launched by a group of business people who formed the Penny PAC.

The Penny PAC has collected donations from dozens of residents, law firms, banks, chambers of commerce, real estate agents and construction contractors, many of whom stand to gain directly if the tax passes.

Jeff Nasse, owner of All-American Concrete in St. Petersburg, donated $1,000 to the Penny PAC and said he is encouraging all of his 65 employees to go out and vote for the tax today.

"There will be a lot in there for us," said Nasse, whose firm specializes in utilities contracting and gets about 75 percent of its business from government contracts. "There'll be a lot of reclaimed water work to be done."

The tax has the endorsement of several special interest groups, from the Police Benevolent Association, which likes the $80-million jail expansion it will fund, to Tampa Baywatch, an environmental group that wants the county to be able to purchase almost $170-million worth of parks and endangered land.

But pockets of resistance have formed in other spots. In High Point, residents are worried the county will spend $15-million of the money to build a school for troubled teens in their neighborhood. In Clearwater, residents of the waterfront Pierce 100 condominiums are upset that the city and county plan to spend $22-million on a bridge that will pass right by their windows.

Everyone agrees that St. Petersburg, where voters overwhelmingly rejected the tax in 1989, is key.

"The largest turnout in the county is going to be from the southern end," said County Commissioner Bob Stewart, who thinks St. Petersburg's record of spending the penny tax money on small neighborhood projects, rather than glitzy, expensive ones, will pay off.

"We'll find out for sure tomorrow," he said.

ABOUT THE POLLS

If you don't know where your polling place is, or if there is a problem when you show up at the polls, help should be available from the supervisor of elections at 464-3551. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

CALL FOR RESULTS

St. Petersburg city election and Penny for Pinellas results will be available on TimesLine by 10 p.m. Using a Touch-Tone phone, call TimesLine (find the number for your area on the back page of this section); punch in category code 1057.

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