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Hernando sales tax vote taught political lessons, supporters say

 
Published Sept. 10, 2015

BROOKSVILLE — Joanne Lyon, exiting a Brooksville polling place Tuesday afternoon, was happy to say she had voted for the Hernando County School District's half-cent sales tax and happy to say why.

"I just feel the schools really need the help," said Lyon, 63, who once worked as school bus driver in South Florida. "And a half cent is not going to hurt me."

That sentiment overwhelmingly carried the day Tuesday, as voters approved renewal of the tax by a 21 percentage-point margin. The convincing victory, supporters said, proved that voters will support a tax increase if they receive clear evidence it is reasonable and necessary.

"I think (the results) are indicative that Hernando County understands that no matter how difficult this decision was, it was the right thing to do," said John Mitten, co-chairman of Save Our Students Hernando, the political action committee that campaigned for the tax.

Specifically, Mitten and other supporters say passage of the tax — expected to raise more than $8 million annually over the next decade — revealed some of the following truths about county voters:

• Republicans, and Republican retirees in particular, are not necessarily anti-tax.

Support for the tax was strong in heavily Republican retirement communities throughout the county and especially in Timber Pines' Precinct 35. The 31 percent turnout there was the second-highest in the county, and the level of support was the highest, 69 percent.

"I think the whole thing about senior citizens not caring about the children was just made up by naysayers," said School Board Chairman Gus Guadagnino, who forcefully supported holding a special election as soon as possible after the failure of last year's referendum on the 1-cent Penny for Projects sale tax, which was to be shared by the schools, Hernando County and the city of Brooksville.

"There was a good push to make the point that this was not a political issue, and John Mitten and (SOS co-chairman) Jimmy Lodato did a great job getting that message out," Guadagnino said.

School Board member and Timber Pines resident Mark Johnson pointed out that many of the retirees in his community are former educators. They realize the importance of public education, he said, as do prosperous retirees in general.

"A lot of our residents owe their success to the education they received," Johnson said. "They appreciate the need for a good school system."

• Voters are more concerned about leaky roofs at schools than providing students with computerized tablets.

Most of the Penny proceeds were earmarked for technology upgrades, including tablets. The money raised through the half-cent tax, on the other hand, will replace aging roofs, air-conditioning units, floors and other big-ticket items. That is guaranteed by the wording of the ballot and by a citizens committee that will review spending of tax money.

Mitten said clarity about the use of the money helped gain trust among voters.

Lea Anne Fernandez, 37, got that message, she said after casting her voted in favor of the tax in Brooksville on Tuesday.

"I wanted it to help our schools, which are in severe disrepair," said Fernandez, a former teacher with three children, two of them students in the public schools.

She said she also understood that the upgrades are so urgently needed that paying for them would soon begin to drain money from instruction, if not for the sales tax revenue.

"I also want to make sure the students get the programs they desperately need," Fernandez said.

• Grass roots support trumps campaign financing.

The Save Our Students organization was relatively lean, raising about $43,000 in donations, but featured advocates speaking to community groups, yard signs and teachers campaigning at busy intersections. Its presence, supporters said, was greater than the better-funded PAC supporting the Penny and dwarfed the profile of opponents of the schools-only tax, who were led by former Socialist presidential candidate and peace activist Brian Moore. Moore did not respond to requests for comment about the election results.

Guadagnino credited the work of Mitten and Lodato. Lodato credited the district's teachers, who enlisted the support of friends and relatives.

At the beginning of the campaign, Lodato said, "I found the teachers were beaten down and felt as if nobody was listening," he said. They became energized during the campaign, he said, and the outcome proved to them that "a lot of people are listening and understand them.

"There's a whole new enthusiasm across the county."

Contact Dan DeWitt at ddewitt@tampabay.com; follow @ddewitttimes.