One of the wisest decisions Pasco County voters have made the past eight years is adopting the county's first local-option sales tax, the "Penny for Pasco."
The one-cent tax, which was passed in 2004 and has raised more than $300 million for local projects, has greatly improved the quality of life in unincorporated areas and cities. New schools have been built; others have been renovated. Major road improvements have been made. Equipment for law enforcement and emergency services has been upgraded.
And the tax proceeds enabled the county to create its first environmental lands acquisition program to protect natural resources and sensitive lands from development. This is a remarkable achievement for a county that for too long relied on homebuilding and other development as its economic engine.
Considering these and other benefits, voters should enthusiastically vote to extend the penny for another 10 years in November. But voters will have to be patient because the measure is dead last on the ballot.
If the tax is extended, it is projected to generate about $502 million over the 10-year period. County government and the school district each would receive 45 percent of the proceeds, while a total of 10 percent would be split by Pasco's six municipalities.
Voters who are new to Pasco should understand the penny — which is added to the 6 cents already charged by the state, bringing the total sales tax in the county to 7 cents on the dollar — is not a new levy. Approval would simply mean it is continued. The tax is paid by residents and visitors alike. Food and medicine are exempt, and the tax on major purchases, such as a vehicle, is capped at $50, according to advocates.
During the original campaign in 2004, there was vocal opposition from a group of residents. This time, there appears to be no strong opposition, and those who don't favor the proposed extension aren't making a big deal about it. This is evidence that even the most ardent tax opponents realize the program has been an extraordinary investment in Pasco — especially for the school system — in a time of declining property tax revenues.
County government has proposed another long list of projects that would benefit both residents and visitors. These include improving more roads and intersections; constructing an interchange at Interstate 75 and Overpass Road in east-central Pasco; installing fire signals and adding sidewalks; building and extending recreational trails; continuing the environmental lands program, which would receive more money than currently allocated; and implementing a countywide public safety communications system.
In addition, a projected $45.2 million of the county's expected $226 million share would be used for economic development as long as projects meet the terms of the county's Job Creation Incentive Ordinance, among other requirements. This would be a new part of the penny program that is allowed by state statute. The money could be used for, among other things, economic incentives, infrastructure and workforce development.
County officials must be careful allocating tax dollars to private companies and throughly review the proposed projects. But if used cautiously, the program should enable the county to continue to diversify its economy and compete with other communities seeking to attract new jobs and land company expansions.
The county's other major taxing entity, the school district, plans to use its projected $226 million share to continue remodeling and renovating older schools and career academies; upgrade schools' technology infrastructure; and add covered walkways and make traffic safety and parking improvements at certain schools, among other projects.
Failing to extend the penny would greatly hurt the school system, which has been plagued by budget shortfalls and declining revenue the past few years. After a period of no growth, the district gained more than 400 new students this year. And school officials are frugal with taxpayers' money.
Under the district's proposed penny extension program, officials stress that it's more cost effective to remodel or renovate some of the older schools instead of building new ones. The Penny for Pasco money, which also has enabled school officials to build four new schools, is an integral part of the district's revenue stream.
Officials from the school district, county government and municipalities have kept the promises made to voters eight years ago about the Penny for Pasco sales tax. It is a tax that has made Pasco County a better place to live and work. We strongly urge a "for" vote Nov. 6.