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Group votes to oppose new tax

Members of the environmental watchdog group Citizens for Sanity agree that Pasco schools need more money. They support the idea of buying conservation lands.

Still, group members voted Thursday evening to oppose the entire Penny for Pasco package, due largely to a mistrust of Pasco County government.

"You can't trust the county," said Clay Colson of Citizens for Sanity. "They haven't held up their end of the bargain, ever."

The slow-growth group voiced several objections to the Penny for Pasco campaign strategies and to some projects that would be paid for with the 1-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax increase. They believe the county will use the money, perhaps indirectly, to give the green light to development in rural areas _ a concern echoed by sales tax foe Ann Bunting.

Many of their misgivings sound familiar to the Penny for Pasco proponents.

"That's a theme we keep hearing. It comes down to people saying, "We just don't trust the county,' " said Tim Hayes, a Land O'Lakes attorney and co-chairman of Pasco's Citizen Committee, the group promoting the sales tax increase. "People are saying, "We don't trust them to spend the money where they say they will.' "

Penny for Pasco advocate Jennifer Seney anticipated some of the questions during her part of a presentation at a forum Thursday. Some 35 central Pasco residents turned out to hear both sides of the issue. The forum was followed by a board meeting and a vote on the issue by the Citizens for Sanity.

"I'm not going to deny that government can be slippery," Seney said. "That's why God created activists."

If voters approve the Penny for Pasco on March 9, officials are tied to everything outlined in the ballot question and accompanying ordinance, said Elizabeth Blair, assistant county attorney. That includes the promise of a half-mill property tax cut from the School Board and the ending of the extra sales tax after 10 years, she said.

Blair points to the title of the referendum, as it appears on the ballot:

"Penny for Pasco _ 10 year

One-Cent Sales Surtax

Half Mill Property Tax Reduction"

"Right there in the title this says, "This is for 10 years, folks, do you want it or not?' " Blair said.

Under state law, she added, officials can use the extra sales tax money only on public roads, buildings, emergency vehicles and other facilities that have a life expectancy of at least five years.

Blair said the ballot language also ensures the division of the revenue: 45 percent to the school district, 45 percent to the county and 10 percent for the cities to share.

And the county, School Board and cities have all adopted resolutions describing in greater detail how they plan to spend the money, calling their plans "a needs list, not a wish list."

"No place in the statute is the resolution required," Blair said. "That is something the county and the municipalities and the School Board wanted to do as an extra step, to give people more information on what they wanted to use the proceeds for."

It is possible for officials to substitute projects, she said, as long as money that is set aside for roads still goes to roads, for example. But officials depart from the plan at their own risk: Citizens' groups elsewhere have taken their elected officials to court when they failed to do what the referendum promised, Blair said.

Pasco officials have no intention of straying from their list, Commissioner Ann Hildebrand said Friday.

"The thing is, in the past when we said we're going to build a road, or build a fire station, or where the School Board is going to put a school, or where we're going to widen a road, we have followed through on that," Hildebrand said.

"The one (road project) we wanted to do that has been delayed is the Ridge Road extension," she added, alluding to the project that stalled amid challenges by the Citizens for Sanity. "We promised to do that years ago and, hello, where did we get delayed?"