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Perspective needed on tax issue

Ann Bunting, the Spirit of '76 Republican diva, thinks the Pasco County Commission should be more like Mike Wells.

Wells, the property appraiser, received Bunting's unabashed endorsement because, she said, he returns excess money to the county at the end of his budget year. Her comments came in response to a County Commission discussion this week about a proposed sales tax increase in Pasco. (See letter elsewhere on this page.)

"Before (commissioners) look to get more money out of us, they need to better use what they already have. They should follow Property Appraiser Mike Wells," Bunting wrote.

Couldn't agree more.

Wells is a former county commissioner. During his eight-year tenure ending in 1992, he supported higher gasoline taxes to build roads, an annual fee to finance the trash incinerator and, most notably, was the architect of a new property tax to develop the county's impressive parks and library systems.

Follow Wells' lead? By all means. It's called vision.

"That was before I really followed politics," Bunting said, explaining her contradictory viewpoints.

Too bad. Some historical perspective is imperative in public debates among a citizenry that hails from somewhere else.

The county's popular libraries, parks and youth recreation facilities are not free. The trash incinerator replaced an environmentally unfriendly landfill. Without the gasoline tax increase, Ridge and Little roads still would be two-lanes of congestion; Rowan Road would end at Massachusetts Avenue; and Collier Parkway in Land O'Lakes and the Zephyrhills bypasses in east Pasco would not exist.

Only Ann Hildebrand remains from the board that pushed through those infrastructure and quality of life improvements in the 1980s and early '90s. She remembers the extensive campaigning to win the 1986 voter approval for $23-million to build the parks and libraries. A similar undertaking will be needed to sell the electorate on the benefits of a so-called Penny for Pasco sales tax increase.

"It's going to go down the dumper unless we put a plan in place and market it correctly," Hildebrand acknowledged.

The current commission is showing signs of doing just that. The first step is to obtain public comment on exactly what the proceeds should be used for if the tax is approved by voters in 2002. A 1-cent increase in the sales tax is expected to generate an average of $22-million annually during a 10-year span.

The commissioners have their own wish lists. A sampling includes buying land for preservation, building roads and making other traffic improvements, developing bicycle trails and expanding the park system, building schools, enhancing the Good Samaritan Clinic's prescription drug program for the needy, financing libraries and improving public safety.

A broad list of beneficiaries is needed to draw support from a wide range of voters.

Supporters should also bring Sheriff Bob White on board. He already is making noise about needing a multimillion-dollar radio system. His Democratic predecessor wanted to use a sales tax and later a property tax to hire more deputies. He was fought every step of the way by Bunting and others. We're presuming White, a Republican, won't meet such vitriolic partisan opposition.

There is no doubt any tax increase will be a difficult political sell. Pasco voters have turned down proposed tax increases four times since 1990, and the noisy opposition has begun 20 months before Election Day. Nationally, the economy is on the verge of a recession, and the dialogue from President Bush centers on the benefits of a tax cut. Regionally, Pinellas County is being criticized for having to trim its Penny for Pinellas construction because of early overspending, and the city of Tampa is debating the merits of Mayor Dick Greco's plan to use Community Investment Tax money.

The mayor wants a splashy centerpiece to an arts and cultural district instead of the more mundane drainage and other neighborhood-type improvements. Obviously, there's disagreement about what constitutes a community investment in Tampa.

In Pasco, Commissioner Peter Altman said the proposed tax should be characterized as a capital needs assessment. It is not intended as a sleight of hand, he said.

"If these (projects) need to be done, then we're going to have to figure out how to do it, and a sales tax increase is just one way," Altman said.

Hildebrand, who brings historical perspective to the debate, offers a more simple message for the benefits of a Penny for Pasco:

"It makes good quality of life sense, good business sense and good tax sense."

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