The past 20 years justify another 10

A Times Editorial
Published February 25, 2007

The Pinellas Trail. The Florida Botanical Gardens. Boca Ciega Millennium Park. The Brooker Creek Environmental Education Center. Clearwater's Brighthouse Networks Field. Miles of new sidewalks and bike paths.

These public amenities, which help make Pinellas County a special place to live and raise a family, are among hundreds that benefitted from the Penny for Pinellas sales tax during the last 20 years. Without the tax, most probably would not exist today. Pinellas residents should keep that in mind March 13 when they vote on whether to extend the tax for another 10 years.

Voters first approved the tax in 1989 as frustration about the county's widespread infrastructure deficits was peaking. Pinellas' road network produced nothing but grid lock. Towns still had dirt streets. Jails and recreation centers were bulging. Public buildings were in disrepair. Environmental lands were not being purchased and preserved.

Residents were fed up, but they opposed property tax increases. What they were willing to do, in both 1989 and 1997, was approve 10-year levies of a sales surtax.

The tax adds 1 cent to the state's 6 cent sales tax. That extra penny on a dollar is charged only on the first $5,000 of a purchase, and essentials like food and medicine are not taxed.

The tax, which is divided among the cities and county, raised more than $800-million its first 10 years, $1.3-billion the second 10, and is forecast to raise $1.9-billion if extended another decade.

That is a lot of money, but it has been put to good purpose and wisely spent. The parks, libraries, nature preserves and recreational facilities the tax has helped build are wonderful amenities. But much of the penny revenue has gone for essentials such as roads, bridges, fire stations, jail expansions and flood control projects. That essential work never stops, and the cost of such projects is skyrocketing.

One of the best reasons to vote "yes" on March 13 is that everyone who buys something in Pinellas County pays the tax. Not just property owners, but also renters, vacationers and day visitors pay into the penny pool.

A second reason to support the tax: It helps reduce the pressure to raise property tax rates. The penny sales tax can only be used for capital expenditures. Local governments use the penny to pay for capital projects, which preserves property tax revenue for day-to-day operations. Without the penny, property taxes would rise, further straining the budgets of property owners.

The Penny for Pinellas has boosted the quality of life for residents and will help meet the complex demands of the future.

The Times strongly recommends a yes vote on extending the Penny for Pinellas.