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PINELLAS SAYS YES TO SCHOOL LEVY

Supporters had worried voters would be in anegative mood on taxes.

Pinellas voters overwhelmingly renewed a special property tax for schools Tuesday, even as they strongly supported a constitutional amendment that will reduce their total tax bill.

It appeared the margin of victory could exceed that of 2004, when the tax first passed with 64 percent of the vote.

The 2004 measure will raise a total of $145-million in its first four-year cycle, ending with the 2008-09 fiscal year. The renewal will carry it through 2012-13, continuing to provide millions for teacher raises and art, music, technology and reading programs.

Supporters attributed the victory to two factors: that the money is spent only on Pinellas schools, and that the district and an independent citizens panel have kept a close accounting on the money.

That's not the case with the rest of the county's property tax proceeds, a portion of which is sent to other Florida districts under the state's complicated formula.

"We're in a less-than-friendly property tax climate at the moment and in many ways local government has kind of become the bad guy in the fight," said Beth Rawlins, a political consultant who led the campaign.

"I think it was important to people that all of this money was used exactly as the voters intended it and that none of it was wasted in any way shape or form,'' said Rawlins, who has two boys in Pinellas public schools.

Said Kim Black, president of the Pinellas teachers union:

"We're grateful to the voters of Pinellas County that they renewed their faith in us and that they wanted to keep their local tax dollars here, where it's going right to the schools."

Shortly after 8 p.m. Tuesday, when early results showed strong support for the renewal, a cheer went up among a small crowd of teachers and other supporters at union headquarters in Largo.

Tuesday's outcome mirrored the results of a recent teachers union poll showing strong support for the renewal. The August survey of likely voters found that 66 percent supported the measure

Some supporters, including members of the School Board, had feared antitax sentiment would derail the renewal, or that voters would confuse it with the constitutional amendment.

But Pinellas voters proved to be a discerning group. The results indicated that most had separated the school tax from their overall desire to reduce property taxes.

The school tax is 50 cents on every $1,000 of assessed value.

According to state projections, the constitutional amendment could result in a loss of $6.2-million in revenue next year for Pinellas schools, on top of other cuts that may be necessary because of state revenue shortages.

Had the renewal failed, Pinellas budget officials were predicting a dire scenario dubbed the "Titanic model."

It included a painful choice: cut teacher salaries or make deep cuts to the rest of the budget.

"We could never in the course of the campaign forget that the flip side was that the voters wouldn't approve it and every teacher in Pinellas County would take a $4,000 hit," said Rawlins, who engineered the victory with a modest campaign of less than $35,000.

"I think (voters) saw a program that doesn't cost an individual very much but collectively produces amazing programs for our teachers, for art, music, textbooks, technology, reading coaches for every student that needs one...''

Times staff writer Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at tobin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8923.

With all the hype about the presidential preference primary and the question of statewide property tax cuts, local elections in three Pinellas cities may have gotten lost. Those results:

Clearwater mayor

Rita Garvey: 10,120 votes, 40%

Frank Hibbard: 15,242 votes, 60%

Gulfport City Council

Ward 1

Rick P Gilbert: 1,434 votes, 42%

Judy Ryerson: 1,946 votes, 58%

Ward 3

Robert E. Worthington: 1,886 votes, 57%

Angela L. Leiner: 1,419 votes, 43%

Safety Harbor City Commission

Seat 3

Nadine S. Nickeson: 2,975 votes, 54%

Mark W. Taylor: 2,511 votes, 46%

Seat 4

Nina Bandoni: 2,663 votes, 50.2%

Robin L. Forino: 2,642 votes, 49.8%

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