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Column

Tax decision premature

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

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 9, 2003


The Pasco County Republican Party is against property tax relief.

You heard it here first. So did most of the party members. That is one of the pitfalls of acting prematurely.

The Pasco GOP opposes the so-called Penny for Pasco sales tax referendum, a plan to increase the sales tax from 6 to 7 percent for capital construction of schools and other government projects. Ann Bunting, party secretary and head of the Spirit of '76 Republican Club, details her objections in a letter elsewhere on this page.

Mind you, this is opposition to a referendum scheduled for 2004. The party balked almost immediately after the School Board, County Commission and representatives of the six cities met in late January and decided to put the issue to voters.

The knee-jerk reaction is mystifying. Is the party's rank-and-file set to cast ballots for U.S. senator before knowing who from the GOP will seek the seat? Could the Pasco party pick its next gubernatorial candidate without knowing whether Toni Jennings, Tom Gallagher or a host of others will run for the post?

By objecting to the tax proposal before hearing the details, the GOP wasn't able to learn of Commissioner Ted Schrader's idea to cut property taxes. Schrader, by the way, is a Republican.

Schrader announced Thursday evening he is seeking a quarter-mil reduction in Pasco County's property tax if the sales tax is adopted.

That could be accomplished by tying future capital spending to the sales tax revenues, estimated at an average of $14-million a year for county government over a 10-year period. He also said the county would lobby for a change in state law to allow a portion of the local option sales tax to be used for operations and maintenance. Current state law requires the proceeds to be spent on capital projects.

Schrader revealed his strategy during a "Future of Pasco County" forum at Saint Leo University with the chapter of the Pi Sigma Alpha political science honor society serving as host. Other panelists included Zephyrhills City Manager Steve Spina, New Port Richey City Manager Gerald Seeber and Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce Chairwoman Alison Berke-Morano.

"The beauty of the sales tax is everybody pays it," Spina told the audience of 30 people.

In other words, let the tourists help pay for the schools, police cars, fire trucks and new jail wing.

Schrader's plan equates to a 25-cent property tax reduction for every $1,000 of assessed taxable value. That would be $25 annually for the owner of a $125,000 house with a homestead exemption. Will it balance the amount paid annually in sales tax? Not likely, though it depends on individual buying habits.

But Schrader doesn't have to stop there. The county just approved an emergency services master plan that will use a new impact fee and the property tax in the municipal fire district to offset the $32-million fire department expansion over the next seven years.

County officials have said they expect to reduce the fire tax rate after the first wave of new fire station construction is completed.

Now, imagine how much more the rate could be reduced if the county had the ability to use sales tax revenue to acquire a portion of the fire trucks, ambulances and fire stations detailed in the plan.

That would be some marketing campaign, wouldn't it? Cut your property taxes: Vote Penny for Pasco.

Much of the attention on the county's share of the sales tax proceeds has lingered on parks and libraries. Opponents like to point to that as exorbitant elective spending.

But there are other needs. The county will face a state mandate to increase the size of its jail. Sheriff Bob White is advocating an $11-million upgrade of the public safety communications system. The judiciary is talking openly of a Central Pasco court complex that will carry a price tag of at least $30-million.

"These are not going to be glamourous projects but we're going to have to build them whether we like it or not," Schrader told the crowd.

With the School Board unrepresented at the forum, most of the spotlight fell on municipal and county governments. But Seeber, cautioning he was voicing his personal sentiments, said educational opportunities are one of the keys to the county's future. Tackling these imperative issues will require unpopular decisions.

"It has been my experience elected officials do what they perceive the majority of the people want them to do," said Seeber. "It takes a lot of guts to run for public office. It takes even more guts to be the first bird off the wire" to advocate a public policy change.

An accurate analogy. Consider that the GOP opposition surfaced just after newly minted Republican Steve Simon's fire-and-brimstone speech to Bunting's club. Simon, the former Democratic County Commissioner, said the sales tax initiative is being pushed too quickly.

It is utter nonsense. Simon talked openly of the need for the Penny for Pasco during his first campaign for commissioner in 1998. And in the summer of 2001, he voted against a proposed taxing district for parks and recreation saying it would damage the county's ability of obtaining voter approval for the sales tax.

So, while Simon's rhetoric helps stir up the opposition, Schrader pushes forward with an idea running contrary to his own party.

Who looks like the first bird off the wire?

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