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Tax foes not confident they can stop renewal of Penny for Pinellas sales tax in 2017

Tarpon Springs has used Penny funds to shore up the Spring Bayou seawall. Mayor Chris Alahouzos has met with community groups about the tax and not encountered much opposition.
Tarpon Springs has used Penny funds to shore up the Spring Bayou seawall. Mayor Chris Alahouzos has met with community groups about the tax and not encountered much opposition.
Published Apr. 9, 2017

CLEARWATER — The anti-tax foes that helped defeat the Greenlight Pinellas transportation sales tax in 2014 don't believe they can thwart the coming renewal of the Penny for Pinellas sales tax. The 30-year tax is coming up for another vote in November.

But critics of the penny tax can still complain about it.

Their latest complaint is that they don't stand a chance against the coordinated campaign under way from elected officials across Pinellas County who are using public funds to highlight to residents what the tax has paid for over past decades.

"Everybody loves feel-good stories," said St. Petersburg resident John Burgess, who, with his wife, Betsi, donated thousands of dollars to oppose the Greenlight Pinellas initiative. "People get what they deserve when they vote themselves more taxes."

Seminole businessman Tom Rask, another ardent Greenlight foe, called it "problematic" that public officials were going around the county, holding public meetings and asking residents how to spend the money before the tax has even been approved.

Rask said the 2017 initiative will be difficult to derail. But he's already giving it a shot, distributing fliers opposing the tax.

"It's very hard to defeat the renewal of a tax," Rask said, but county officials "act like they already have the money."

County spokeswoman Barbra Hernandez said the meetings and surveys are "part of a robust public-engagement program" to spread information across the county.

"We are trying to get through to as many people as possible," she said. "It's crucial to reach them early in the process."

County and city officials are touting projects such as bridges, libraries and recreation centers that were built and paid for with their share of the penny tax. Residents who are attending these information sessions are also taking surveys about how the next round of funding should be spent if the tax is renewed for 2020 to 2030.

Another selling point: Officials estimate that one-third of the revenue comes from tourists.

The Penny for Pinellas is certainly well-known. Voters approved earlier rounds of the tax in 1989, 1997 and 2007.

In addition to hosting meetings, officials have developed websites to highlight past projects. Signs will also be erected in front of buildings to tell voters what came from the tax program.

Officials have already projected how the $2 billion that would be raised by the tax in the next decade would be divided: About $225 million would go toward countywide investments such as 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.

The mayors, city councils and city managers in 17 municipalities are preparing wish lists for the next round of funding. In August, the Pinellas County Commission is expected to approve ballot language for the renewal.

Largo Mayor Woody Brown said the city will focus spending on vehicles for first responders, as well as street and sidewalk repairs. Residents know property rates would be higher if Penny money wasn't available, Brown said.

"If people understand the Penny and all it's done, it's a easy sell," Brown said about winning voter support.

Tarpon Springs Mayor Chris Alahouzos said he has met with community groups and held town hall meetings to talk about the tax. He plans to host more meetings through the summer and said he has not encountered much opposition to the tax.

"All of the people are in favor of it," the mayor said. "They believe it's a no-brainer. There is a benefit to this program."

The renewal comes as the county faces an infrastructure crisis from aging sewer systems.

Cities, especially St. Petersburg, need money to repair failing systems. A hurricane, a tropical storm and summer rains have overwhelmed St. Petersburg's sewer system in the past two years, causing 200 million gallons of sewage to flow into streets and waterways.

St. Petersburg's City Council held a committee meeting recently to discuss ways to highlight projects from Penny for Pinellas money. The group debated the best ways to reach the most voters.

City Council member Charlie Gerdes asked whether the city could use election data to target residents who voted when prior renewals were on the ballot. A city attorney cautioned that action might not be legal.

Council member Jim Kennedy called for more signs, saying: "There will be a benefit from people seeing signage, almost overkill in that regard."

The discussion focused on aging sewer systems that need to be repaired and replaced.

"That is our strongest message," council member Karl Nurse said about the needed repairs.

Burgess, the St. Petersburg resident who opposed Greenlight Pinellas, said he would support the Penny for Pinellas program if elected leaders called it an "infrastructure tax" and only used money for projects such as roads and sewers. He opposed Greenlight because it would have funded light rail.

He also said that using the moniker "Penny for Pinellas" — which has been in use for three decades now — is a "marketing ploy" and gives elected leaders wiggle room to pay for pet projects.

"It's become nothing but a big slush fund for elected officials to dole out money," Burgess said. "There is no accountability in the Penny for Pinellas tax."

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

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