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Penny for Pinellas sales tax extended

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

Pinellas County officials began preparing for a future paved with copper Tuesday, after voters overwhelmingly agreed to extend the 1 percent sales tax known as the Penny for Pinellas for another 10 years.

"I'm reading this as a go-ahead vote," said County Commissioner Bob Stewart. "People are telling us to go ahead with the projects we have planned."

The tax is expected to generate about $1.4-billion for road improvements, parks, sewer lines, flood control and public safety projects.

"The projects that the Penny will pay for are exactly what (the voters) asked the government for," said Rod Fischer, treasurer for the Penny PAC, a group of business people who supported the tax.

The tax, which adds one cent to the state's six-cents-on-the-dollar sales tax, would have expired Feb. 1, 2000, had it not been renewed. In 1989, the tax passed by just 398 votes, with 29 percent voter turnout.

Tuesday, 23 percent of the county's voters went to the polls.

"The first time is always the hardest time, because people have to trust you," said Stewart. "This time we had a track record to sell."

In the first seven years of the tax, it has helped pay for the Pinellas Trail, a new criminal courts complex and to make the Bayside Bridge a non-toll road.

The county touted that track record in an $80,000 educational campaign, which was supplemented by a $100,000 effort by the Penny PAC that included billboards and radio, newspaper and television advertisements. Much of the funding for the campaign came from street pavers and utilities contractors who stand to directly benefit from local governments being able to fund the proposed projects.

Proponents sold the tax as a way to pay for infrastructure improvements without raising property taxes and to make tourists pay for part of the cost.

No formal opposition emerged, but the tax was opposed by a small band of loosely organized citizens.

"What can I say? $200,000 and a big organization beats no money and no organization," said Darryl Paulson, a University of South Florida government professor who spoke out against the tax. "It looks like voters will have to feed the giant for another 10 years."

The county government will get about half the tax money, which it plans to use to pay for an $80-million jail expansion, $170-million in parks and endangered lands, $350-million in road projects and $104-million in flood control and stormwater drainage improvements.

Proposed projects include widening parts of Ulmerton Road, extending the Pinellas Trail and building park facilities at Weedon Island Preserve.

"The community has come out and voiced their support for making an investment in the environment for ourselves and our children," said Peter Clark, executive director of Tampa Baywatch, a regional environmental group.

St. Petersburg will receive about $242-million from the tax, more than any other municipality. Voter approval of the extension paves the way for $10-million in neighborhood improvements, $20-million in street and road improvements and $12.5-million in bridge repair and replacement.

"I think we have to be even more concerned this second time around about accountability and about making sure voices are heard and people approve of how we're spending it," said St. Petersburg Budget Director Patricia Elston.

Opposition from residents of High Point, who are worried that law enforcement officials will spend $15-million to build a school for troubled teens in their neighborhood, didn't seem to put too much of a dent into the tax.

Clearwater will get $101.2-million from the tax. Officials there will now have the $23-million they need to replace the Memorial Causeway Bridge, a project that angers residents of the Pierce 100 condominiums who would have their waterfront view blocked by one of the proposed designs for the bridge.

"We haven't chosen an alignment for the bridge yet," said City Commissioner Karen Seel. "I can promise that before we do we will be thoughtful and we will be accountable, just as we will be for all the Penny projects."

Clearwater will also have the $12-million it wants to widen Druid Road, $12-million to expand the library and $7.3-million for a police substation and more parking at the beach.

Largo will get $67.2-million. Officials say they will widen West Bay Drive, expand the library and develop the east side of Largo Central Park.

Dunedin will get $35-million. The city wants to replace aging sewer lines, expand the reclaimed water system, improve the city swimming pool and make sidewalks comply with requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

"We have a very bright future into the next millennium," said City Commissioner John Doglione.

When the extension expires in 2010, it's not clear whether government officials will ask voters to renew it again.

"What we do with the Penny gets us ready for the next 40 years," said Elston. "If the community looks around in another 10 years and says "Yes, we've done a lot, but we need more,' then, maybe we would."

_ Times staff writer Curtis Krueger contributed to this report.