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Second time around better for Penny

In 1989, the vote on the Penny for Pinellas amounted to little more than a coin toss, with fewer than 400 votes saving the one-percent sales tax referendum from defeat.

On the second try, county officials hit the jackpot, drawing a surprisingly strong 65 percent of the vote in Tuesday' election, with support throughout the county.

"I thought it would pass, but I thought it would be a squeaker," said St. Petersburg City Council member Beatrice Griswold. "I didn't realize it would be a landslide."

Voters approved the first 10 years of the tax in 1989. It would have expired Feb. 1, 2000 had voters not approved the renewal through 2010.

On Tuesday, there were only five of about 350 precincts in Pinellas where the majority of voters were against extending the one-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax.

"It certainly was an eye-opener," said University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus. "It really goes counter to the trends we're seeing in other parts of the country and even the state."

Even in East Lake, where voters have on several occasions killed property tax referendums for recreation projects, support for the penny sales tax was solid.

"People are seeing the money at work on East Lake and Keystone Roads," said Nick Mitrano, a member of the Upper Pinellas Youth Sports Association. "Our road conditions out here are really 10 years behind and we're desperate."

Agnes Tillerson of the Citizens Action League, a Penny opponent, said the penny tax drew more support from East Lake voters than the proposed property tax for recreation projects because voters don't like property taxes. And, she said, they like the fact that the penny tax will be paid by everyone in Pinellas, including tourists.

The only precinct north of Gandy Boulevard where the majority voted against the tax was the home of the Pierce 100 condominium complex, whose residents made good on their promise to get out and vote against the tax. The Clearwater residents are worried the city will use $23-million from the $1.4-billion the tax will generate to build a new Memorial Causeway Bridge that will block their waterfront views.

But their 144 "no" votes weren't enough to make a dent in the tax's 38,890-vote margin of victory. Nor were what some have seen as a mistrust of government and an anti-tax sentiment among the largely conservative electorate in Pinellas.

"If that isn't a mandate, I don't know what a mandate is," County Commissioner Bob Stewart said. "This did turn out to be a vote of confidence in county government."

Coming on the heels of the arrest of a county commissioner on a cocaine charge, as well as failed tax referendums in East Lake and for St. Petersburg Junior College, the tax in some ways seemed ill-timed.

But other factors were in its favor:

NO NEW TAXES: Residents have become accustomed to paying 7 percent sales taxes during the past seven years, so renewing it won't take a larger bite out of their wallets.

"This clearly demonstrates that the first round of a tax is where you have to defeat it," said University of South Florida professor Darryl Paulson, who actively opposed the tax.

Paulson and MacManus said the outcome wasn't so much a vote of confidence for government as much as a fear that the government would raise property taxes without the Penny. And voters liked the fact that about 35 percent of the money the tax will raise will come from tourists.

"People are saying "I don't want to pay one red cent more in property taxes," said Tillerson. "They're saying "If I can get somebody else to empty their pockets and pay for this stuff, I will.'

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PICTURE PERFECT: The Bayside Bridge. The Pinellas Trail. The Criminal Justice Complex. Most of the projects the tax has helped pay for are tangible, and the county and cities were able to remind voters of exactly where the money went by placing "Penny for Pinellas at Work" signs in front of them.

"The county didn't have to show that people got $900-million worth of projects for $900-million worth of taxes," Paulson said. "They just had to show people pretty pictures of the projects it has helped fund."

Because the vote was so soon after the hard-fought referendum in Hillsborough to pass a half-cent sales tax to pay for, among other things, a new football stadium, MacManus said it was key that the Penny for Pinellas is going toward general infrastructure improvements.

"It wasn't going to a rich man with a football team," MacManus said. "Stadium and sports issues have really become a pariah in tax referendums all over the country."

THOSE SOCCER MOMS AGAIN: Pinellas has gotten younger since the tax first passed in 1989. That means more families and kids who will benefit from the swimming pools, recreation centers and ball fields the tax pays for.

"People can see all around them the positive effects the tax has had," said Polly Brannon of St. Petersburg, who has three children. Two of them play baseball at Fossil Park, which is scheduled for $1.2-million in improvements, paid for by the penny tax.

When she takes her children to soccer tournaments in places such as Sarasota and Land O'Lakes, she realizes how far behind Pinellas is.

"They have beautiful facilities," she said. "We want all of that for our children too."

DISORGANIZED OPPOSITION: The The county government and the Penny PAC, a group of business people who supported the Penny for Pinellas, together spent almost $200,000 promoting the tax. But opponents never got organized.

"I really think that might have been a big part of it," Tillerson said. "People would call and say "Don't you have bumper stickers? Don't you have fliers?,' and we didn't have any."

Paulson said key arguments against the tax _ that it's regressive because it hits poor people harder than rich ones _ just didn't resonate.

"I do feel sorry for these poor people who are getting shafted," he said. "I don't see a great deal of empathy for them anywhere."

ROOM TO GLOW: In most of the county, the Penny was alone on the ballot. Opponents criticized county commissioners for picking March instead of November 1998 as the date for the referendum, arguing that they were trying to slip it through during a time when most voters wouldn't come to the polls.

In St. Petersburg, where there was a municipal election, the voter turnout was almost 35 percent. In the rest of the county, it was barely 19 percent. But whether that is low or not depends on your point of view. Municipal elections in Safety Harbor and Largo this year, for instance, drew about 12 percent of the voters.

But Stewart said commissioners picked March 25 so that the penny referendum would shine.

"It put the focus on the Penny," said Stewart, who thinks it would have passed in November anyway. "But it certainly wouldn't have passed on a 65."

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