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Outcome unclear in penny vote

When pollsters asked some Pasco residents last summer whether they would support a sales tax hike to "improve roads, public safety, schools," preserve land and reduce property taxes, 61 percent said yes.

When local Republican Party volunteers asked some independent voters five months later whether they would support the Penny for Pasco "knowing that your property taxes will go up in the long run," nearly 56 percent said no.

The answer, it seems, depends on how you ask the question, whom you ask, and how you look at the 1-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax hike coming to voters March 9.

Sales tax foe Ann Bunting, who helped conduct the latter survey from her home last November and December, released those results this week to suggest voters will oppose the Penny for Pasco "when they learn the truth."

But one polling expert said Bunting's question is "clearly biased," and sales tax advocate Allen Altman calls it flat-out wrong.

"When you ask a question with no regard for the facts, you'll get a response with no validity," said Altman, co-chair of the Pasco's Citizen Committee, the group promoting the sales tax hike in order to build new schools, repair roads and provide funds for other projects. "And the fact is, your property taxes will be lower if the Penny for Pasco is approved, and that is an absolute, undeniable fact."

If voters approve the Penny for Pasco, officials vow to knock a half-mill off the School Board property tax rate for the 10-year life of the sales tax hike. A half-mill equals 50 cents of tax for every $1,000 of taxable property value.

Bunting believes the sales tax projects will pave the way for more growth, however. And she thinks that will lead to higher property taxes to pay for the roads, schools and other facilities for the growing communities.

Impact fees, the one-time taxes on new construction to pay for those things, don't cover the entire tab, Bunting said.

She also questions whether the half-mill property tax cut will actually remain in place for 10 years, or whether homeowners will see their taxes drop as their property values rise.

"When they learn the truth about the tax and that it will not reduce property taxes, most people are not going to vote for it," said Bunting, head of the Citizens Against the Penny for Pasco.

All untrue, Altman said. The Penny for Pasco will pay to fix existing traffic trouble spots, not pave new roads for new development, he said. And part of the sales tax money would go toward buying development rights or conservation land, ensuring some vacant tracts won't become subdivisions that need more roads, schools and other facilities, he said.

"To say the Penny for Pasco will enhance new development is another on a long list of totally inaccurate statements," Altman said.

The first survey, which showed 61 percent support for the sales tax, came from a poll conducted last summer for the Pasco Times. Paid pollsters for Communications Center Inc. called 400 randomly selected Pasco County residents between June 26 and July 1.

The second survey, which showed 2-to-1 opposition to the sales tax among nonmajor party voters, came from a survey last November and December. The local GOP surveyed those independent Pasco County voters as part of a statewide polling effort for the Republican National Committee.

That poll included questions on Social Security, abortion and gun control, but the Buntings were allowed to add a question of local interest.

The Republican National Committee provided a list of about 15,000 independent voters, Bunting said. About 40 volunteers, many of them working in shifts from the Buntings' home, dialed every number on the list, and 2,313 people agreed to participate.

Of those surveyed, 1,291 people (or 55.8 percent) said they would vote against the sales tax hike, and 659 people (28.5 percent) said they would vote for it. Another 363 people (15.7 percent) were undecided.

The results of the Buntings' survey are highly questionable, said Tom Smith, director of General Social Survey at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

It is impossible to tell whether the 2,313 people surveyed _ or the 15,000 people on the contact list _ accurately represent the county's 51,747 independent voters at the time, Smith said.

And the question itself "is clearly biased because it brings up something that goes beyond the tax itself," Smith said.

By the same token, Bunting's question reflects a growing suspicion among voters that politicians don't keep their tax cut promises, said Susan MacManus, professor of political science at the University of South Florida.

"In the common person's mind they'll say, "Sure, you're going to keep my property taxes down for two years, then you'll jack it back up,' " MacManus said.

_ Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6244 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6244. Her e-mail address is bhallsptimes.com.

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