Wherever he goes these days - government meetings, Republican events, social gatherings - Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats delivers the same message:
Support the Penny for Pinellas sales tax.
He gives several reasons why, but none more compelling than the need to expand the Pinellas County Jail. The facility, built for 2,400, is grossly overcrowded, routinely holding 3,700 men and women. Each night hundreds of inmates must sleep in portable beds on the floor. Attacks on jail staff jumped 82 percent last year.
"If the Penny doesn't pass, I guess we'll have to ask our citizens to take home a prisoner or an inmate for safe keeping," Coats said. "The alternative to jail expansion will be to release people back into the community, potentially compromising the safety of our citizens."
The penny-on-the-dollar sales tax going before voters Tuesday is expected to provide Pinellas County and its cities almost $2-billion in revenue if extended from 2010 to 2020.
About 10 percent of that, $225 million, would be taken off the top for court and jail projects. County officials have said their first priority would be a new 2,500-bed expansion that would bring the jail's capacity to 5,298.
Coats says that critics of the tax have raised legitimate questions about some Penny-funded projects. But he added the county has no choice but to deal with jail crowding, which is expected to get worse in the coming years. The prospect of releasing inmates disturbs Coats.
"What kind of message would that send to those who commit crimes?" he said.
David McKalip, a St. Petersburg neurosurgeon leading the local group Cut Taxes Now, wonders why the county needs Penny funds to pay for jail improvements, considering how much in property taxes the county already collects. McKalip led a protest outside the Pinellas County Courthouse on Friday.
"The government can't be trusted with these amounts of money," McKalip said. "They're simply engaging in political propaganda to get people to vote the way they want. ... When they get serious about property taxes, then they can ask the citizens to support other special projects."
McKalip said the county should instead consider a local bond measure for jail projects, rather than relying on the Penny.
"I believe we need to make sure that public safety is properly funded," he said. "And if a new jail is essential, they need to convince the voters of that."
Jerry Herron, the county's budget chief, said failure of the Penny would not stop the county from addressing the jail issue. It would mean, however, that other priorities like parks or human services would suffer as monies were diverted to jail construction.
"There are certain projects - bridges, roadways, jails - that it would be public malfeasance to ignore," Heron said.
Coats hopes it doesn't come to that. He plans to continue spreading the word, gathering support until Tuesday.
"I think about it every day," he said. "Any time I'm out and about in the community, I'm talking about it."
Jacob H. Fries can be reached at 445-4156 or firstname.lastname@example.org.