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The Pasco penny promise shouldn't be broken

Promises made. Promises kept.

If that sounds familiar, it should. It became the campaign theme in 2012 when 70 percent of the voters said they wanted to extend the Penny for Pasco sales tax for another 10 years, raising a half-billion dollars for schools, transportation, public safety, economic development and environmental land preservation.

The second go-round for that penny-on-the-dollar tax officially began Jan. 1 of this year. Just nine months later, Commissioner Jack Mariano wants a do-over.

Mariano thinks voters should reconsider how the money is allocated. He wants less for buying green space and a new category added — drainage. He sees it as a way to curb the potential for future flooding in Pasco without having to raise taxes.

Most everyone else sees it as a breach of faith.

Mariano, the District 5 commissioner, wants to tap Penny for Pasco to help offset some of the $61 million worth of stormwater projects that lie ahead for Pasco County. The county's Environmental Land Acquisition and Management Program, commonly called ELAMP, is scheduled to receive $45 million over the 10-year life of the tax.

"I thought it was more than what we needed. I always thought we had too much money in (ELAMP),'' Mariano said. "Nobody wants to raise taxes. If we do it this way, we're not raising taxes; we're reallocating.''

His idea has been met with near universal disdain, particularly since the county already charges a $47 annual stormwater assessment, and commissioners are poised to raise it by $10 in the new fiscal year.

More disturbingly, Mariano is continuing a trend among elected public officials, downplaying the significance of the environment. Hernando commissioners turned their land-buying tax into a mosquito control account, then recently disbanded their Environmentally Sensitive Lands volunteer board absent an advertised public hearing. Amid public outrage, the commission, instead, fired the volunteers and told everyone to reapply for fewer positions on the reconstituted board.

Hillsborough County no longer finances its land-buying program, even though a majority of voters have supported the program in three separate referendums.

And in Tallahassee, the Legislature ignored the will of the voters and spent most of the $300 million that Amendment 1 designated to protect endangered waters and lands on other, ongoing expenses.

It's a blatant shell game that Mariano should be careful to avoid repeating in Pasco.

"That is a 10-year promise, not a one-year promise or a two-year promise,'' said deputy school superintendent Ray Gadd, one of the architects of the sales tax campaign.

"I think changing it hurts the trust of those in office, hurts the trust of those who committed to getting it passed again,'' said lawyer Hutch Brock of Dade City, who co-chaired the citizens committee that advocated for the tax renewal. "I don't think it's an appropriate use of the money. You just completely take away from the trust factor if you change it.''

"Jack never saw a pot of unspent money that he didn't think he could spend better than the people charged with spending it,'' said Mac Davis of Aripeka, a member of the county's ELAMP committee, which reviews land for potential purchase.

This isn't the first time Mariano has set his sights on the Penny money. In 2005, just five months into his first term as commissioner, Mariano attempted unsuccessfully to use Penny for Pasco money on improvements at the intersection of Little Road and Timber Oaks Drive, spending that would have benefited parents traveling to Dayspring Academy, the charter school his kids attended at the time and where he had served previously as a director.

Three years ago, amid the campaign to extend the sales tax, Mariano again wanted to raid the ELAMP kitty and, instead, direct more money for roads and economic development.

It is that plan that Mariano is resurrecting. He wants half or three-quarters of the environmental money — as much as $33.75 million — set aside for the stormwater work for which no funding source has been identified. Doing so would require another voter referendum, and three votes on the commission to alter the Penny for Pasco ordinance.

Mariano is timing his proposal to the public anger over the recent flooding in west Pasco. But it is poorly timed to another event. In the coming months, commissioners are scheduled to consider a new ordinance setting aside wildlife corridors to connect existing open space in the county. How exactly is the county supposed to enact that proposal if it's simultaneously retreating on its own financial commitment to the environment?

For several years now, Pasco has been seeking to market itself as "Florida's premier county for balanced economic growth, environmental sustainability and first-class services.'' Perhaps, it should expand its definition of premier:

We don't break our promises.

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