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Pinellas voted conservatively in 2014 and 2016, so what does that mean for Penny for Pinellas tax in 2017?

The Penny for Pinellas 1-cent sales tax helped East Lake Fire Rescue buy three fire engines from Pierce Manufacturing at a cost of $1.6 million. The county's voters will choose whether to renew the tax for another 10 years in 2017. [Courtesy of East Lake Fire Rescue]
The Penny for Pinellas 1-cent sales tax helped East Lake Fire Rescue buy three fire engines from Pierce Manufacturing at a cost of $1.6 million. The county's voters will choose whether to renew the tax for another 10 years in 2017. [Courtesy of East Lake Fire Rescue]
Published Dec. 21, 2016

CLEARWATER –– Pinellas voters overwhelmingly rejected the Greenlight Pinellas transportation sales tax in 2014 and turned the county red for President-elect Donald Trump in 2016.

So what will those voters do when the Penny for Pinellas sales tax comes up for another 10-year renewal in 2017?

Local officials said they're not worried about the tax's chances at the polls in 2017. When they campaign for its renewal, they plan to tout the Penny's track record over its nearly three-decade history funding local projects.

The tax has paid for fire stations, equipped first-responders and built roads, bridges, park trails and other infrastructure projects. Another selling point: Officials estimate that one-third of the revenue comes from tourists.

The Penny for Pinellas' 1-cent sales tax is expected to generate $2 billion over the next decade for the county and its 24 municipalities. But it will also come up for renewal just three years after voters rejected the Greenlight Pinellas plan that would have developed a robust mass transit network by raising the sales tax to eight cents on the dollar.

That plan won support from almost every local elected official — yet was rejected by 62 percent of the voters. Pinellas County Commissioner Dave Eggers, a Republican, said the two tax referendums can't be compared to one another.

"It's a different story altogether," he said. "They stand on their own. The voters in Pinellas have seen the real value of the Penny tax. That's what it's all about."

Officials from across the county are preparing wish lists for the next round of money, which will be distributed from 2020 to 2030.

The Penny for Pinellas is coming up for renewal just as the county faces an infrastructure crisis: Local sewer systems released more than 250 million gallons of waste after storms in June and September, the bulk coming from St. Petersburg.

The city needs millions to fix its overwhelmed system, and other cities can direct the tax revenues to upgrade their sewer systems as well. St. Petersburg's estimated revenue from the Penny for Pinellas funds could reach $326 million between 2020 and 2030, records show.

Barb Haselden, the St. Petersburg resident who led the No Tax for Tracks group that helped defeat Greenlight, said "it's still too early" in the renewal stage to form an opposition group. But she said "a lot of people" are examining the list of completed projects and future projections.

She described the tax as a "huge commitment" and questioned why local sewer systems failed since the Penny tax was initially slated for infrastructure projects.

"We have a public-safety hazard going on," Haselden said. "We have a failing infrastructure. Maybe the worst kind."

St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse believes the Penny should be dedicated to helping fix that infrastructure.

Mayor Rick Kriseman has not yet shared any projections for the Penny for Pinellas money, Nurse said, but the council will hold a workshop next month to discuss ways to spend the funds.

The renewal will be a "hard sell" to residents if the next round of spending is laced with "fun projects," he said. Nurse's term expires in 2018, but he said city leaders with a "backbone" need to use the money for sewer, stormwater and transportation projects.

"It has to be for the most-basic infrastructure needs," Nurse said, "not ribbon-cutting projects."

Meanwhile, all seven of the county's commissioners –– three Republicans and four Democrats –– support renewing the tax.

Commissioner Karen Seel said she isn't worried that voters would reject the long-standing tax in 2017 because they voted conservatively in November's election.

"I truly believe Pinellas is a special place," said Seel, a Republican. "Taxpayers really know what this tax has done."

Commissioner Janet Long, who will chair the board next year, said partisan politics didn't stop voters in November from renewing a four-year tax for school needs, which costs homeowners about $50 a year per $100,000 in assessed, taxable value.

The tax costs homeowners about $50 a year per $100,000 in assessed, taxable value, and was up for its third renewal. The tax referendum maintained strong support throughout the economic downturn and tea party wave.

Still, Long said infrastructure projects will help convince voters to renew the Penny tax, adding: "It's not sexy, but that stuff isn't free. This has been a tax that people can understand."

With the county leading the charge, a unified campaign will include billboards, workshops and public hearings to detail how the money will be spent across Pinellas. A new website highlights hundreds of projects.

The $2 billion that the next decade of tax money is projected to raise would be divided this way: About $225 million would go toward countywide investments like economic development, affordable housing, land assembly and jail and court facilities. The county would get $915 million on top of that, while the cities would split $853 million.

Voters approved earlier rounds of the Penny tax in 1989, 1997 and 2007.

The measure narrowly passed in November 1989 and decisively in March 1997 and March 2007 in municipal election cycles rather than general elections in even-numbered years.

Turnout is low in municipal elections. Only 29 percent of Pinellas voters weighed in on the Penny in 1989; 23 percent in 1997; and 16 percent in 2007. In November's general election, by comparison, 77 percent of the county's voters –– nearly 500,000 people –– cast ballots.

Each municipality decides how to spend its share, Eggers said, but voters know the money funds big-ticket projects in their communities.

He noted the $81-million public safety complex that opened in 2014 on Ulmerton Road in Largo. The complex houses the Emergency Operations Center, the county's 911 call center and the new administrative offices for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. The facility will also serve as the command center for the entire county in case of an emergency.

"As long as we deliver on the promises we make," Eggers said, "I feel confident Pinellas voters will renew the tax."

Contact Mark Puente at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente