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Vote shocks senior center's fans

Administrators say they will regroup after voters reject a special tax to support the center.

By RICHARD DANIELSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 9, 2000


PALM HARBOR -- In a close decision that surprised both supporters and opponents, Palm Harbor voters have refused to support the financially strapped Palm Harbor Senior Activity Center with a special property tax.

Voters on Tuesday rejected the proposed tax 53 percent to 47 percent.

A precinct-by-precinct breakdown of the votes was not available late Wednesday because of the recount in the presidential race, but it was clear that the referendum roused strong interest in Palm Harbor voters. Nearly 3,000 more voters cast ballots in the referendum than in a special election for the Palm Harbor Fire District board.

On Wednesday, the center hosted a fundraising fashion show and luncheon, but executive director Irene Rausch said the mood was "a bit subdued."

For supporters who actively campaigned on behalf of the tax, the defeat came as a surprising setback. They said it also was a sign that many voters don't know enough about the 10-month-old senior center on 16th Street.

"We're disappointed," said Jerry Hooker, the president of the senior center's board of directors. "There's just not enough interest on the part of a lot of people. A lot of people don't even know where the center is yet."

In the week leading up to the election, senior center volunteers put out more than 100 signs at polling places and major intersections around Palm Harbor, Hooker said. Rausch said volunteers also handed out leaflets and made about 4,000 calls to registered voters older than 50 who had a history of turning out on Election Day.

About three-quarters of the voters called indicated that they would support the referendum, and only a small percentage said they were opposed, Rausch said.

Given that response, senior center administrators felt they had reason to be optimistic going into Tuesday's vote.

"We really thought we had it pretty well-organized, and . . . I thought it was going to fly," Hooker said.

But in the days before the referendum, a small, loosely organized group of opponents put up signs urging a "no" vote on the question.

"I thought (the tax) had a very good chance of passing," said Palm Harbor retiree Bob Clune, who has been an outspoken opponent of the tax.

Clune said supporters seemed to be well-established, but for months he had aggressively questioned their arguments and assumptions about the need for the tax. That continued through Election Day, when he and Rausch both ended up trying to sway voters outside Precinct 563, at the Crystal Beach Civic Center.

As proposed, the referendum would have given Pinellas County officials the authority to levy a property tax of up to a quarter mill to support the center senior. A mill equals $1 in tax for every $1,000 of assessed, non-exempt property value. As a result, the maximum tax on a $125,000 home with a $25,000 homestead exemption would have been $25 a year.

But senior center administrators said they only expected to ask for about half of the maximum tax allowed, or just an eighth of a mill.

Clune contended that, that line of argument was misleading.

"I think they've been rather disingenuous with the people, when the ballot says a quarter mill, selling the idea that it was only going to be an eighth of a mill," he said.

For her part, Rausch said Clune had spread bad information of his own up until the election and felt that he confused voters.

Still, one voter said he felt the senior center tax would have benefited a relatively small and not particularly needy group of people in Palm Harbor.

Retired contractor Edward Dooge said he voted against the referendum in part because of what he's seen at the senior center himself. As a Rotarian, Dooge said he has helped host an annual dinner for seniors at the center. He said the retirees he saw appeared to be quite capable of supporting the center themselves.

"The reason I voted against is these ladies are very well-dressed . . . and the cars were never more than 3 years old," he said. "I say give it to the people who need the money."

Senior center administrators had said they needed the tax because of higher-than-expected operating expenses and lower-than-expected revenue from memberships and donations. Before the election, board members said the center was losing an average of about $3,000 a month.

Currently, Rausch said, she and her assistant regularly work 60 hours or more a week, but that cannot continue.

The executive committee for the center's board is expected to meet today, and the board is expected to meet next week, Rausch said. She wasn't certain what additional steps the center would take next but did not rule out that user fees for night and weekend programs would have to go up to cover the cost of staffing the center during those times.

What will not happen, she said, is that the center will close. Instead, people can expect to see "an intensive membership drive" and the start of bingo, which is expected to be a moneymaker.

"I firmly believe that when one door closes, another one opens," Rausch said. "This will get us to redirect our efforts. . . . we're regrouping."

- Staff writer Richard Danielson can be reached at (727) 445-4194 or danielson@sptimes.com.

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