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Both sides in for more than a penny

A number of firms that may benefit from increased construction have been the main contributors to Penny for Pasco supporters. Tax opponents say that's no surprise.

Published January 16, 2004

NEW PORT RICHEY - Some builders, bankers and developers are becoming big believers in the Penny for Pasco - so big that they're pouring thousands of dollars into promoting the 1-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax hike.

Campaign contribution reports filed this week show the development community is giving a hearty push to Pasco's Citizen Committee, the political group promoting the tax. Of the $45,381 the committee has raised so far, $32,701 came from bond companies, architects, engineers, contractors and developers.

Most of those companies are based outside the county, although they do business in Pasco. Two of the biggest contributions ($5,000 from UBS Financial Services and $2,500 from Citigroup Global Markets) came from bond companies based in the New York area.

What's their interest in the sales tax hike coming before Pasco voters March 9?

"It provides a better quality of life, and is better for their business in the long run," said committee co-chair Allen Altman, noting the tax would pay for new schools, improved roads, environmental land buys and other projects.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with businesses that have a presence in the county assisting or participating in an issue where the benefits are so obvious," Altman added.

But the benefits could extend to consultants and contractors, too. If the tax passes, school and county officials will have millions of dollars in building and road paving projects - and they'll need someone to design and build them.

One architecture firm that specializes in school facilities design, Holmes Hepner & Associates of Tampa, donated $5,000 to the committee promoting the sales tax. Creative Contractors of Clearwater, which built the West Pasco YMCA and several other local projects, chipped in $1,000.

"Being in the construction business, we're hopeful that (passage of the sales tax) helps our business as well," said Creative Contractors vice president Tom Fronce. "That's just part of it."

The other part, Fronce said, is a shared interest in the community where many of the company's employees live or work. Fronce's wife is a Pasco County elementary teacher, so she sees firsthand the school district's overcrowding problems, he said.

"We have always supported the opportunity to assist in sensible growth, and having built a number of projects in Pasco County, we feel that it's our civic duty to assist and hopefully provide sensible growth," Fronce said.

The sales tax increase would raise about $437-million over its 10-year life, with about a quarter of that paying for a property tax rate cut from the School Board. The county and the school district would then each get 45 percent of the revenue, and the cities would split the rest.

Don Buck, president of DEVCO Communities, said a sales tax is the most equitable way to charge everyone for roads and other public facilities. Impact fees only hit people buying new homes, he said, and property taxes only affect landowners.

He also acknowledged the Penny for Pasco projects would make the county a more attractive place for people to buy the new homes he develops.

"People (buying a home) look for schools, good neighborhoods, quality development, recreational activities," Buck said. "Most of all, they look at the road system. They don't want to spend hours a day figuring out how to get to and from work."

That's just what sales tax opponents like Ann Bunting suspected. Bunting said the tax will only benefit developers by paving the way for more subdivisions.

"They're not going to attract people into a community to buy these upscale homes unless there are enough roads and enough schools to accommodate the development," said Bunting, head of Citizens Against the Penny for Pasco. "They need this. They need more roads and schools for developers to do the building they need to do to make their money."

So far, Bunting's group has raised only $24 in in-kind contributions: copying costs for antitax pamphlets.

The propenny group has spent $19,659 so far, including $10,000 on political consultant Dick Batchelor, who guided a successful 2002 campaign in Orange County to pass a half-cent sales tax for schools.

Another $7,250 went to repay a loan from Pasco's Citizen Committee member Bill Phillips, who helped pay Batchelor's fees last August. Batchelor helped the group research sales tax issues and develop its strategy, but his work now is done, Altman said.

[Last modified January 16, 2004, 01:33:00]

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