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Leaders, take initiative to back sales tax bump

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By C. T. BOWEN, Pasco Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 8, 2002

It's an impressive wish list that keeps growing longer.

Books, cars and cells -- jail, not wireless communications -- popped up this week. Roads, schools, land preservation and parks remain the old standbys.

It is the litany of things that could be accomplished with a Penny for Pasco sales tax. Consider:

Sheriff Bob White needs a bigger jail. Last week, there were more than 1,000 inmates. The county's two jails are designed to hold 889.

The sheriff wants new vehicles. He lost the opportunity to buy more than $900,000 worth when the County Commission trimmed his budget request for the coming fiscal year.

Dade City is kicking around a different idea on how to obtain patrol cars. The city is considering a sponsorship agreement with a North Carolina company to offset the cost of acquiring new police cars.

The same day White lost his proposed fleet, county commissioners approved an impact fee expected to produce $6.2-million by the end of the decade for an expanded library system. Hardly an impressive figure, it is two-thirds short of the total needed to build two new libraries, expand three existing ones and buy a bookmobile.

The commission previously increased its recreation impact fee fivefold, but it, too, leaves half of the county's $40-million park master plan unfinanced.

The Pasco School District has built 10 schools in the past three years, yet still has not whittled the number of students housed in portable classrooms. It continues to gain more than 2,000 new students annually. The $1,700-per-single-family-home impact fee is a significant help, but its proceeds are offset by land acquisition costs.

So, let's look at the tally, shall we? Law enforcement, libraries, parks, schools. All face significant capital costs.

But all could be paid for by a sales tax increase if anybody -- besides journalists -- wants to begin a campaign. A few weeks ago, the Times suggested editorially that school superintendent John Long has the leadership skills to tackle the issue. He shouldn't have to do it alone. White shouldn't be reticent to detail his needs. He also should support a way to finance them.

"I'm not the tax man. I'm the police man," White said in an interview last week.

Too simplistic. His role as a high-profile constitutional officer makes him a leader, or at least it should. White can explain his requests for a jail expansion and patrol cars and corrections officers and whatever else, but he shouldn't let somebody else figure out how to pay for them.

Pinellas Sheriff Everett Rice saw the wisdom of the sales tax increase in his county. Approved by voters in 1989, it financed construction of a new jail and courthouse. It's the least painful way to go, Rice said then.

White's endorsement of a sales tax increase from 6 to 7 percent would be significant, because it would temper the no-new-tax wing of the Republican Party.

Increasing the sales tax to 7 percent would generate approximately $22-million a year for construction projects in Pasco County. The six cities benefit, too. The money, however, cannot be used for personnel costs.

A poll commissioned by the Pasco Builders Association measured the public's sentiment toward a sales tax increase. Alex Deeb, head of the association's political action committee, said last week the results weren't available yet. But Deeb's feelings are clear.

"It would be a good thing," Deeb said. "You can't do it all with impact fees."

One of the selling points is the ability to spread costs to tourists. The success of the Penny for Pinellas campaign is attributed, in part, to 40 percent of the sales-tax revenue coming from visitors.

The same year, voters in Hillsborough County rejected a similar tax proposal and did so again in 1995 before finally approving the Community Investment Tax, which financed Raymond James Stadium, road projects and school construction.

The 1989 defeat was attributed to a distrust in Hillsborough County governments. The vote came a half-dozen years after commissioners had been led away in handcuffs in a bribery scandal.

That's not likely here. Pasco voters approved property tax increases in 1986 and '87 to build parks, libraries and schools even though county government had been a grand jury target in 1982.

Four other referendums -- a sales tax for schools and property taxes for children's services and law enforcement -- failed in the 1990s.

Marketing the idea will be key. It will take a wide-reaching coalition of interests, all with the same goal, summed up accurately by Deeb.

"It will help improve life in Pasco County," he said. Who could be opposed to that?

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