[February 14, 2007]

Pinellas' Penny Tax Push Funded On Public's Dime

(Tampa Tribune (FL) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Feb. 14--CLEARWATER -- The video shows the Bayside Bridge traversing Old Tampa Bay, then viewers are asked to imagine "what life would be like without" the crucial transportation project, which then fades from the screen.


The same question is asked about the Pinellas Trail. First, bicyclists are pedaling along the popular hiker-biker path, then the trail morphs into the old railroad bed it once was.

The nearly seven-minute video and two commercials that county officials call public service announcements are part of a carefully orchestrated campaign to persuade residents to vote in favor of extending the Penny for Pinellas 1-cent sales tax -- without telling them to vote for the measure.

Instead, the county is spending thousands of dollars to educate voters about the benefits of the local-option sales tax, which has paid for such highly visible projects as the Bayside Bridge and the Pinellas Trail since it took effect in 1990.

The county commission has budgeted $200,000 for the publicity effort. Officials said last week, however, that they plan to spend far less to get their message out before the March 13 referendum.

The county has spent $20,700 on roadway signs, telephone surveys, bill stuffers and other items, said Marcia Crawley, director of the county's communications department, which is overseeing the publicity effort.

"We've tried our best to approach this as frugally as we can," Crawley said.

Officials said they are using county resources simply to inform voters, not to push for approval of the tax renewal.

"My feeling is we should be out there informing potential voters of an upcoming election, what's on the ballot and the significance of it," Commissioner Bob Stewart said. "If we were out there speaking, 'Vote yes,' then I'd say that would not be an appropriate expense of public dollars."

Still, Stewart said, "whether you're advocating or not, I think it's all a pretty fine line."

'Working For You'

Supportive tones are everywhere in the county's penny campaign, "Working for You," even if people are not urged explicitly to vote yes, said Darryl Paulson, a professor of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

The "Penny at Work" video running on the county's cable television station tells viewers, "It's up to you. Will you continue improving your community? Your future? Will you keep funding these 'cents' of accomplishments?"

It says the tax extension is expected to raise nearly $2 billion "for projects that improve all of our lives."

"People have been so bamboozled by this notion of pretty pictures and all of these things the penny has done," Paulson said. "It's not to say some of these projects haven't been good, but the good projects would have been done anyway. They would have found a way to build those projects."

The county has enough money, mostly from an 85 percent increase in property tax revenue during the past six years, Paulson said. Continuing the sales tax merely relieves governments of setting priorities and making tough spending choices, he said.

It also "puts them in the position of being advocates for these projects because they're the direct beneficiaries," he said.

Some cities are running their own penny education campaigns.

"Governments always find a way to consume all available resources, and that's what's happening here," Paulson said. "The county and the 24 municipalities are essentially public hogs feeding at the trough, and they're going to get as much free food as they can possibly get."

As for the county using taxpayer money for its informational campaign, Paulson said, "It ought to be banned."

The practice is not limited to Pinellas. In Clearwater, the city is spending up to $62,000 to inform voters about a downtown boat slip project, also on the March 13 ballot. Last year, the county and most of its cities waged competing ad campaigns over several county charter amendments. St. Pete Beach even affixed magnetic signs on city vehicles urging people to vote "no."

State Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg, called that move "one of the final straws" in explaining his decision to file a bill this year that would prohibit governments from using tax money to advocate for or against a ballot item or other issue.

"I just think a line should be drawn," Justice said. "I don't like it when they're spending our tax dollars to push a position when it should be left to the voters."

Spending 5 Million Pennies

Crawley estimated the county would spend $50,000 telling residents about the penny tax's benefits.

That's less than the $80,000 the county spent during its last campaign to extend the sales tax, in 1997. That effort, though, was augmented by a business-based political action committee that spent $100,000 to promote the tax extension. No such committee has formed this year.

Two telephone surveys show that 65 percent to 70 percent of people polled support continuing the sales tax for a third decade, from 2010 to 2020, Crawley said.

"We don't anticipate widespread education to the wholesale public is necessary," she said, "because people are telling us they know about the penny and they support it."

Stewart, though, remains cautious even though he is optimistic about the referendum's passage.

"Having been in enough campaigns, I know just because early indications are things look good is no reason to sit back and not go full force with your educational program," he said.

Reporter Carlos Moncada can be reached at 727-451-2333 or cmoncada@tampatrib.com.

Copyright (c) 2007, Tampa Tribune, Fla.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.
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