Voters to decide whether to extend $2 billion Penny for Pinellas tax

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — Pinellas voters will decide Tuesday whether to extend the “Penny for Pinellas” for another decade or to scrap the tax that has funded billions of dollars worth of roads, bridges, parks, trails and other infrastructure improvements since 1990.

“When I first came on the commission five years ago, the maintenance and the ongoing issues involving the draining in this county were atrocious and had not been addressed in 50 years. So we have a lot of makeup we need to do,” said Pinellas County Commission Chair Janet Long. “The work is not done.”

Tax proponents such as Long like to call it “A Penny for Pinellas,” but laid side by side, the pennies it will raise from consumers would stretch 95 times around the Earth or put another way, to the moon and back five times.

“That’s a lot of pennies,” said penny tax critic Barb Hasselden, who is also running for county commission. Hasselden insists the wording of the penny tax ballot question is too vague and broad and steers away from basic infrastructure needs like roads, bridges, flood prevention and sewage treatment..

“We’re morphing now away from brick and mortar and into economic development and land acquisition for affordable housing,” Hasselden said.

Penny tax promoters say if voters approve a 10-year extension starting in 2020, the penny sales tax will raise $2 billion to fund basic city and county improvements such as flooding and sewage spill prevention as well as economic development and affordable housing — two things that were not specifically named in three previous extensions of that one percent sales tax.

That’s one of the things that bothers Hasselden and other tax critics like Deb Caso, an anti-tax activist who lives in Palm Harbor.

“My basic fear is that they will squander the money because the ballot question is very vague,” Caso said. “I’m voting no.”

The tax will maintain a 7 percent sales tax in Pinellas for spending up to $5,000. After that, consumers will pay 6 percent.

Long is one of the most outspoken supporters of the ten year tax extension that would begin in 2020. Long points out that visitors and tourists will pay about one-third of that tax and that the list of proposed projects stems from widespread public input.

“Most people understand that this is not free,” Long said. “This beautiful paradise is not free.”

But penny tax critics insist the county’s list of proposed projects is simply a wish list and not a promise for any particular project. They also express concern about the expansion of projects to include economic development and affordable housing — two things they do not consider infrastructure priorities.

Either way, when Pinellas voters fill out their ballots Tuesday, they will make the biggest spending decision ever on the county level. Both sides insist the future well being of Pinellas County is at stake.

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