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To gain voters' support of tax increase, be sure to be specific

By C.T. BOWEN
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 21, 2002

The note said it all, even if nobody else would.

"Penny for Pasco."

Zephyrhills City Manager Steve Spina scribbled the three words while listening to a debate over requested funding for a proposed million-dollar community playhouse in Dade City.

If the Pasco County Commission had granted a $250,000 request for the CARES theater, would others have come forward with hat in hand?

"Sure," said Spina.

Zephyrhills wants to build a $3-million performing arts and civic center. I'm certain New Port Richey would ask for financial help for its Hacienda Hotel dream and Port Richey for its parking garage. The Heart of Land O'Lakes planning group, which has no municipal government, would make a pitch for a town center.

All are worthwhile endeavors, according to their proponents. But from where would the money come?

Look back at Spina's note.

Increasing the sales tax from 6 to 7 percent would generate more than $22-million annually for capital spending in Pasco. Revenues from Penny for Pinellas and Hillsborough County's Community Investment Tax are responsible for Raymond James Stadium, school construction and road improvements in Hillsborough and the Bayside Bridge, a criminal courts complex and a slew of other projects in Pinellas.

Five days ago, the Pasco Commission turned down the CARES funding proposal for a 250-seat theater. Everyone offered accolades about culture and geriatrics, but nobody would commit money from the county's general fund. Using the tourist tax money is not allowed under state law.

The group withdrew its request, but not before Commissioner Ted Schrader suggested the project backers try to partner with those advocating public acquisition of environmentally sensitive land.

Land preservation and live preformances. Not exactly a traditional marriage. More like Angelina and Billy Bob.

Schrader refrained from identifying a funding source for the CARES theater. We won't. It is one of the potential conflicts. The Environmental Lands Acquisition and Management Program, eLAMP, is seeking a voter referendum for a property tax increase of no more than 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to finance a 20-year bond issue for land preservation. The group focused on ad valorem taxes because the money can be used not only for purchase, but for managing the land as well.

The local option sales tax, under state law, is restricted for capital construction. The Legislature has been resistant to change, as former Sheriff Lee Cannon found when he lobbied unsuccessfully to allow the sales tax to cover public safety personnel.

Jennifer Seney, deputy treasurer of eLAMP, said the group is open to talks with the CARES supporters.

"But one thing sure to kill it is to try to tax people without clear-cut definitions of where the money is going," said Seney. "The cultural aspect is just as important as land preservation in terms of quality of life, but I don't necessarily see them as a natural mix."

Its poll, conducted in late May and shared with commissioners July 9, shows little public support for a sales tax increase.

Some suspect a push poll. Certainly, the phrase increasing the sales tax with the "County Commission being able to spend the money for whatever they think is needed" raised my eyebrows.

Asking potential voters about a sales tax increase to fund better parks, libraries, public safety, schools, roads and environmental preservation surely would have brought a more favorable response.

Except the commission has never been that specific during its rare discussions of the sales tax. The question's phrasing was selected because of the ambiguity.

As asked, the poll found 67 percent of the respondents opposed to the sales tax increase.

Another poll question likely didn't sit well with the commission, either. Only 19 percent of the respondents gave the commission a positive job rating in protecting natural resources.

Consider the historical perspective, though. Past commissions failed to adopt an ordinance requiring wildlife habitat studies, as required by the Comprehensive Land Use Plan; bemoaned government acquisition of land as detrimental to the tax base; went behind the county administrator's back to hire a political chum as its water lobbyist/lawyer; and, until four years ago, routinely came up on the short end of water disputes with their neighbors in the region.

The public obviously has a long memory toward shortcomings. The current commission has advocated a wildlife ordinance, tree rules, landscape requirements, protections for well heads, and other environmental standards.

But the public reaction is a good lesson. If the commission is serious about asking voters to consider a sales tax increase in 2004, it needs to soon start building public confidence in its financial stewardship. Rushing a quickly assembled list of nonspecific projects to the voters guarantees defeat. (The commission couldn't even pass its own gas-tax proposal for much the same reason.)

Ambiguity might aid some political purpose, but not a public purpose.

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