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Offering freebie is no way to sell penny tax

Pasco County commissioners shouldn't turn a sales tax referendum into a Christmas tree.

That is the danger with the latest idea floated by Commissioner Peter Altman, who dangled yet another ornament on the proposal to make it more attractive to a voting segment, in this case, low-income senior citizens.

Altman asked his fellow commissioners to consider adopting a second property tax exemption for seniors whose taxable incomes are below $22,096 annually. Commissioners rejected the idea three years ago and wisely did so again Tuesday.

Altman attempted to tie the proposal to the outcome of the March 9 referendum in which voters will consider raising the sales tax from 6 to 7 percent to finance construction of schools and roads, preserve environmentally sensitive land and buy public safety equipment. Low-income seniors worried about prescription drug costs or other basics might support the sales tax if they are rewarded with lower property taxes, Altman reasoned.

Critics labeled the idea a gimmick. You can't fault their perception. The sales tax plan already incorporates a half-mill property tax reduction in the school district's capital construction levy. Reaching to appease yet another constituency with a property tax rebate _ just six weeks before the election _ is imprudent. At best, it is timed poorly. At worst, it could help legitimize inaccurate criticisms the county doesn't need new revenue.

"To try to bring this up at this time to try to gain support for Penny for Pasco is ill advised," Commissioner Ted Schrader told Altman.

"What about the single mom with three kids and a $22,000 income?" asked Commissioner Pat Mulieri.

There are other reasons for resisting the temptation. The amendment is fraught with inequities in its implementation. The process does not take into account the difference between income and worth, which leaves it open to abuse by those it really isn't intended to benefit. Should an over-65 senior who has paid for and lives in a $200,000 home, but whose income is less than $22,096, be granted an additional $25,000 exemption?

Where's the fairness in granting a tax break to someone who may have amassed substantial wealth in real estate, savings or tax-exempt securities that is not counted as income? In addition, the law discriminates against eligible seniors who rent instead of own their homes.

The potential damage to the Penny for Pasco campaign outweighs benefits to over-65 homeowners who already qualify for such measures as the Save Our Homes initiative, which caps property tax increases at 3 percent annually.

That amendment has removed more than 10 percent of Pasco's property values from its tax rolls. As of 2003, $1.468-billion in property is not taxed because of Save Our Homes, and the total is increasing about $300-million annually, according to the Property Appraiser's Office. The county's tax roll for the current year is $13.99-billion

Commissioners who want to broaden support for the sales tax referendum should tout the benefits of: a school-age population spending a full day in school instead of confronting the potential for double sessions; easing traffic congestion; making dangerous intersections safer and preserving green space in a rapidly developing county.

The capital construction program is substantial and can stand on its own merits. Commissioners are smart to dismiss attempts to woo critics with tardy tax-break promises.