In an ideal word, Hernando County voters would have had an opportunity on Nov. 4 to vote separately on whether they wish to tax themselves more to improve schools and other government projects. Instead, county leaders decided to combine the two, betting voters would see past the special-interest pandering on road construction to support the rational investment in public schools.
Despite legitimate criticism of the combined referendum, there are a substantial number of reasons to vote yes on the sales tax referendum — 21,223 reasons to be exact. That's the number of schoolchildren attending Hernando County's public schools. Voting no on the referendum, to spite irresponsible commissioners and their special interest cronies, severely penalizes the wrong audience.
The penny-on-the-dollar sales tax is projected to provide the school district $85 million over 10 years. Hernando County and the city of Brooksville would divide a similar amount rest based on population. The county has earmarked its proceeds for road improvements; sidewalks and other safety enhancements near schools; matching dollars for construction of a longer runway and other additions at the county-owned airport; broadband Internet service across the county and economic development projects. The city of Brooksville is budgeting $8.2 million to rebuild Main Street, add sidewalks on North Avenue and construct the Providence Boulevard development/light industrial area via a new street, utility and drainage work.
The largest expenditure, however, is for the kids. The school district plans to purchase $62 million worth of tablets ($285 per student per year) to advance the public school system into the digital learning arena more aggressively. The district also plans to spend $22 million to maintain existing school buildings with new roofs and new heating/air conditioning systems. It's just a portion of the nearly quarter-billion capital construction list facing the school district over the next decade.
While a prettier Main Street in Brooksville and a pot of money for economic incentives for the county are pleasant extras, the long-term investment in education is the most imperative benefit of the tax that has been dubbed Penny for Projects. Consider the data compiled nearly seven years ago when T. Rowe Price began its flirtation with relocating and expanding to Pasco County in a deal that never reached fruition. Within a 30-minute drive of the proposed office campus on State Road 54 resided more than 88,000 people (16.6 percent of the adult population over 25) with four-year college degrees. That's a higher concentration of an educated workforce than the rest of the region and the nation.
Now consider the numbers for Hernando County as compiled by its former business development manager. The number of Hernando adults enrolled in college is one-third lower than the state and U.S. averages. Less than one in 11 of the county's adults holds a bachelor's degree and less than 5 percent completed post-graduate work. Both statistics pale compared to state and national averages.
Diversifying the local economy beyond residential construction and low-paying service sector jobs begins in the classroom. In the Nov. 4 Hernando County referendum for a one-cent sales tax, the Tampa Bay Times recommends yes. .