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Sales tax increase starts today

It's not your imagination. Things are slightly more expensive today.

The Penny for Pasco kicks in today _ meaning the sales tax in Pasco County is increasing from 6 to 7 cents per dollar. The higher tax will affect the cost of everything from clothes to cars, although it won't affect tax-exempt items such as food and medicines.

Some retailers doubt customers will notice the dent in their pocket change.

"It's really not that big of a difference," said Eric Hirons, manager of the Wal-Mart Supercenter at State Road 54 and Little Road.

But the pennies will add up to an estimated $437.5-million over the 10-year life span of the tax increase _ enough to fix up schools, repair roads and do dozens of other local projects.

"As we said during the campaign, it was not a wish list. It was not a bunch of projects that would be nice to have," said Allen Altman, co-chairman of the Pasco's Citizen Committee, the group that pushed for the extra sales tax.

"They are very critical projects that need to be addressed," he said, "and the sooner you address them, the cheaper it is."

Voters approved the higher tax in March, with 52 percent in favor. The revenue will be divided among the school district (45 percent), county government (45 percent) and the cities (10 percent).

The filled-to-the-brim school system, which has the equivalent of nine full schools in portable classrooms, will use its share to build nine new schools and renovate 10 others.

County officials will use their cut to improve roads, buy conservation land and acquire public safety equipment such as sheriff's patrol cars and heart defibrillators for public buildings. The highest profile projects include the $22-million overhaul of the nightmarish Interstate 75/State Road 54 interchange and "channelized" medians along U.S. 19 that will allow turns only in a single direction.

The remaining 10 percent will be divided among Pasco's six cities, based on population, for projects ranging from park amenities to drainage and road improvements.

To make the higher tax more appealing to voters, the School Board promised to cut its property tax rate by a half-mill if the sales tax passed. Property owners saw that half-mill cut _ worth 50 cents for every $1,000 of taxable property _ in the latest property tax bills.

"Pasco property owners have already seen those savings in their pocket," Altman said.

Some of the sales tax revenue will be used to reimburse the School Board for those lost property tax dollars, totaling $118.5-million over 10 years.

Store owners have been busy all week reprogramming their cash registers to compute the extra sales tax. There is a cap, so only the first $5,000 of a big-ticket purchase, such as a car, will be subject to the extra sales tax.

Stores send the sales tax to the Florida Department of Revenue, which will dole out the penny proceeds each month to the school district and local governments, said Eric Hershberger, the county's budget coordinator.

"We'll see January's (revenue) in the beginning of March," he said.

Officials are ready to start spending it.

County-hired engineers have been designing the improvements for 10 trouble-spot intersections, and construction can begin as soon as the money is available.

An 11-member panel, charged with recommending conservation tracts for purchase, has held its first meetings. An oversight committee, appointed last month to ensure the school's share of the penny is spent as promised, is tentatively slated to hold its first meeting this month.

The extra sales tax won't be much for smaller items: just 15 cents more for a $15 CD or paperback book, for example. But the pennies will become dollars on pricier items. Customers will pay an extra $10 in tax on a $1,000 piece of jewelry, for example.

Some retailers worry the added cost will be a turnoff to customers.

"I do sell jewelry, and a lot of it is high-end pieces," said Danielle Nichols, manager of Avanti Jewelers in Port Richey. "A lot of times the sales tax does make the difference. If they have to pay an extra $10 or $15, it can make a difference."

Bridget Hall Grumet covers Pasco County government. She 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.

COUNTING THE PENNIES

For the balance of this fiscal year (from Jan. 1 to Sept. 30), officials estimate the extra sales tax will add up to:

+ $8,957,286 for the school district.

+ $8,957,286 for county government.

+ $843,975 for New Port Richey.

+ $579,238 for Zephyrhills.

+ $334,405 for Dade City.

+ $161,231 for Port Richey.

+ $37,820 for San Antonio.

+ $33,839 for St. Leo.

Source: Pasco County Office of Management and Budget

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