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Debate on tax focuses on kids

Some say the Community Investment Tax should support zoo and museum projects; others say children need more than that.

In the debate over how to spend the city's Community Investment Tax dollars, people seemed to agree on this much Monday night: It's all about the children. Trotted out as "Tampa's future," invoked over and over in speeches, Tampa's kids were the unquestionable stars in the third of four public meetings about the tax.

There were so many kids in the room _ including several Boy Scouts _ that one speaker jokingly lamented not bringing her own.

It got tricky quickly: People couldn't agree on what exactly these kids needed.

To some who spoke to the packed room at the Jan Platt Library, what the kids need is what Mayor Dick Greco has proposed: a $30-million art museum and a $14-million expansion of Lowry Park Zoo.

Lex Salisbury, president of the zoo, told the crowd he had received thousands of letters of support for the zoo. Some 20 other zoo supporters, including volunteers and employees, crowded the room. They spoke of zoo programs for inner-city kids and of the discount days that made the zoo accessible to everyone, rich and poor.

Derekk Ellis, 13, dressed in his Boy Scout uniform, told the crowd the zoo sponsors his troop, and "the zoo has helped our troop tremendously" by giving it places to camp. He said he would like to see the zoo expand and praised it as a place kids learn about the animals of the world.

To others, the efficacy of spending so many tax dollars on the zoo and the museum wasn't so clear. Dennis Noto, 54, of South Tampa brought six neighborhood boys to the podium with him. The zoo and the museum were good for the community's children, he argued, but what about the 364 days of the year they weren't visiting those places?

Why not spread more of the money around in the neighborhoods? he asked.

Janet Stanley, 41, a Seminole Heights resident, was one of the most passionate opponents of the mayor's plan. She wants to see the money devoted to things like better sidewalks and more parks and believes the city should strive to make areas like Seminole Heights as nice as South Tampa.

"What good is a trip to the zoo when you open your front door and you have a neighborhood full of decay?" she said. "I see things that would make your heart break. I see kids playing in dirt."

Cheikh T. Sylla, 46, a South Tampa resident and an architect, said that if he believed spending the CIT dollars on neighborhood problems would solve them, he would support that alternative without hesitation. But "you're not going to make a single dent," Sylla said, adding that there will always be potholes.

"I'm interested in seeing any effort at revitalizing our downtown area," Sylla added in an interview. "The cultural arts district and the expansion of the zoo are tangible benefits that will serve the entire community."

A fourth public meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. today at the University of South Florida Energy Technology Resource Center at 3650 Spectrum Boulevard, Suite 100. Greco, who attended Monday's meeting, said he may schedule another public meeting after that to make sure people are informed of the city's plans.

Greco said he hoped the tax plan would go before the City Council for a vote some time in April.

_ Christopher Goffard can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or goffardsptimes.com.

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