Collaboration key if penny tax is to pass

BROOKSVILLE — The time for collaboration is now.

That seems to be the mind-set of most Hernando school leaders, county government officials and prominent area business leaders who have pledged to promote the Penny For Programs one-cent sales tax like a political candidate ahead of November’s elections.
Hernando County Board of County Commissioners.

A majority of school board members last week voted to partner with the county in promoting the tax.

Supporters say the tax will help fund important projects that will benefit the county and school district, as well as the city of Brooksville.

“It will be good to have everyone working together,” school board member Cynthia Moore said before the board voted Tuesday night.

School board Member John Sweeney agreed.

“We could probably come up with a million reasons why this won’t work,” Sweeney said. “But the project list is fantastic. It benefits the school district. We haven’t all worked together enough in the past.”

The school board voted 3-2 in favor of collaborating on Penny For Programs. School Board Member Matt Foreman made the motion to approve the measure.

The school board instead could have opted to back extending for another 10 years a half-penny sales tax scheduled to expire this year.

A majority of county commissioners last month indicated they support the joint sales tax referendum. Without a sales tax increase, commissioners said, a millage rate hike is likely.

Thanks to declining property taxes and other factors, the county has lost about $300,000 a year during the past decade.

John Druzbick, a former county commissioner and school board member who is a Brooksville businessman, said a political action committee backing the tax looks to raise $150,000 to market the initiative.

“I’ve been here 25 years, and this is the first time I’ve seen a schools superintendent, Brooksville city manager and county administrator sit down at a table on a monthly basis and try to find some things they can do together,” Druzbick said.

“We’re running the penny as a candidate and following a program that has been successful in Sarasota, Osceola, Escambia, Hardee, Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. We have a proven program to follow.”

Brooksville would share in the county’s portion of the penny tax, Druzbick said.

“I’m not sure on the percentage yet, but they will get a percentage,” he said.

Some proposed projects that the penny tax could fund include:

♦ A nearly $20 million, two-part expansion of Barclay Avenue from Elgin Boulevard to San Antonio Road, and from San Antonio to Lundy Lane. Both sections of Barclay could take four years to complete.

♦ A more than $13.6 million expansion of Powell Road, from Barclay to California Street.

♦ Nearly $10.7 million in intersection improvements at heavily-congested Mariner Boulevard and State Road 50, which could take three and a half years to complete.

♦ Sidewalks in the areas of K-8 Explorer School, J.D. Floyd Elementary School and Westside Elementary School.

♦ A pedestrian crossing at Springstead High School and Mariner.

♦ About $6 million in upgrades to Main Street in Brooksville to accommodate parking, sidewalks and bicycle lanes, as well as utilities improvements.

Support for the proposed tax is far from unanimous.

Schools Superintendent Lori Romano during a workshop last week recommended the school board pursue the extension of the half-penny tax that will sunset this year.

School board Chairman Gus Guadagnino and Vice Chair Dianne Bonfield seemed to agree.

“The superintendent had the foresight to research the history of the half-cent sales tax and came to the conclusion that it’s best for the district to go it alone,” Bonfield said at Tuesday’s school board meeting. “I believe that (recommendation) took courage and a lot of study.”

Guadagnino said he didn’t “see the benefit” of the proposed penny tax. “Collaboration must take place, but not on the backs of the students,” he said.

In Brooksville, Mayor Kevin Hohn said he needs more time to research the issue before making up his mind.

“There are pros and cons to it, like with everything else,” Hohn said. “Whether you’re talking about red-light cameras or fluoride, there’s an upside and a downside.”

Morris Porton, chairman of the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce’s Education Training Program, said he believes voters are more likely to pass the penny tax with local leaders working together.

In the past, Porton said, the school district’s half-cent sales tax has passed in years when the county also tried to realize a half-cent increase. That was mainly because the school district proposed specific projects that its tax would fund, he said.

“The county had not designated specific projects and people were skeptical,” Porton said. “This time, we learned to work hard on projects that will benefit (all three entities).

“It would be feasible to have an oversight committee put together so when (the penny) passes, a group of folks will make sure that they do the projects they say they’re going to do. A lot of those projects benefit the whole community.”

Cliff Manuel, a member of Hernando Progress, an organization that focuses on economic development, said many of the penny’s proposed projects have been needed for decades.

“There’s been a capacity deficit for improvements for the school system and the county,” Manuel said. “These projects are continuing to build and will eventually restrain our community from simply being able to get around. That will negatively affect our economy.

“Our objective is always jobs and economic development. In the end, the dividends will far outweigh any negativity.”

Reporter Michael D. Bates contributed to this story.

Collaboration key if penny tax is to pass
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