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    Too few pennies for too many Pinellas projects

    After Penny for Pinellas revenues fail to keep pace with projects, some might be canceled.

    By LISA GREENE

    Revised February 5, 2001

    © St. Petersburg Times, published January 30, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- Plans for dozens of new roads, buildings and parks are in jeopardy because Pinellas County has exceeded by $162-million its projected spending of county sales tax.

    County officials said Monday that for years they have approved spending Penny for Pinellas revenues without adding up the total cost of projects -- including multimillion-dollar plans okayed last year for the Florida Botanical Gardens and a technology training center.

    Other projects such as county jail expansion cost much more than originally projected.

    The result: too many projects and not enough money to complete them.

    "It's like going through the cafeteria line," said interim County Administrator Gay Lancaster. "Sometimes your eyes are bigger than your stomach."

    The oversight means commissioners will now go through spending plans piece by piece, looking for projects to cancel or delay.

    At a transportation meeting Monday, staff members recommended removing $53-million in road projects from the county's 10-year plan and delaying other proposals.

    That didn't sit well with Pinellas Park Mayor Bill Mischler, who said he has seen plans to improve some Pinellas Park roads put off repeatedly. The county risks losing the trust of voters who supported the penny tax, he said.

    "This whole Penny for Pinellas thing is sold on seeing the infrastructure go in," he said. "In order for citizens to continue to support this, they need to see it."

    The sales tax money, projected to bring the county $716-million over 10 years, is its chief source of capital improvement spending. Voters approved an extra penny sales tax for 10 years in 1989, and in 1997 they extended it until 2010.

    The problem the county faces has been building over time, said Mark Woodard, the county's budget director. Some projects slated to be paid for by the original penny cost more than projected and ultimately will have to be paid for by the extended tax.

    In 1996, when the first penny still had four years to run, county planners put together a list of what they projected the new tax would pay for. Woodard said that at the time planners didn't expect to run out of money from the first penny.

    But expanding the new jail cost $115-million including the court buildings instead of the projected $80-million. Building the Bayside Bridge cost an extra $96-million after commissioners decided against making it a toll road.

    At other times, the county added to its spending plans: an extra $8-million for the Epicenter training building and an extra $8.5-million for a new medical examiner's office.

    Bonds issued to complete some projects ahead of schedule added $32-million in debt.

    Commissioners knew about each change but hadn't studied the impact on the entire plan for the penny tax, said Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd.

    "The information's always been given to us, but when you start adding things up, it becomes a much more significant issue," she said. "The cumulative impact should have been discussed prior to today."

    Commissioners must "take a hard look" at how the penny money will be spent from now on, said Commissioner Ken Welch.

    "I have questions about how we ran out of money when we had a list of projects," he said. "We need to do a better job of communicating and then prioritizing."

    Commission Chairman Calvin Harris said the penny tax fund has become viewed as an easy way to pay for any project.

    "The list was too inclusive," he said. "There were no cut-offs. Nobody said, "When we get to the end of the money, these won't be funded.' "

    But Lancaster said many projects have been added over the past year, including the gardens and the Epicenter.

    "It's one of the difficult realities that I needed to bring forward," she said. "We came to grips with it as soon as we saw the full picture and saw the real shortfall."

    Todd said commissioners will ask more questions about the impact of spending projects in the future.

    "This whole issue has elevated the importance of making certain that better tracking is put in place," she said.

    Still, Todd said, commissioners "made a promise to the people" with the penny tax and will try to fund those projects.

    - Staff writer Edie Gross contributed to this report.

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