By Matt Wiley
Gardening is pretty much self-sufficient. Seeds are planted, and if tended to correctly, plants grow from them, supplying food or flower to those who helped raise them. This is the plan for the new “Penny for Pasco” tax if renewed for another 10 years — creating economic incentives and “tending” to already existing businesses.
Pasco County administrator John Gallagher addressed the Greater Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce (WCCC) on June 28, inside American Consulting Engineers (located off S.R. 56 in Wesley Chapel) with a nearly hour-long presentation about the “Penny for Pasco” tax that will be appearing on the November 2012 ballot for renewal. The tax is currently set to expire on December 31, 2014, if it is not renewed. So far, the Penny has raised more than $423 million for the Pasco County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC), Pasco School Board and the county’s six cities and, if renewed, is expected to bring in more than $502 million for the county over its next 10-year lifespan.
“Originally, when we went door-to-door, telling people about the Penny in ’04, there was a really negative response,” Gallagher said. “But, now, people have actually seen where their money has gone. It’s really changed people’s minds.”
He added that in recent surveys, there has been a 70-percent approval rating for the renewal of the Penny tax. And, if renewed for another 10 years (expiring December 31, 2024), this Penny will be even more lucrative for the county.
Gallagher described what the proposed tax will do as “economic gardening.” It will be allocated the same as the original Penny (45 percent going to the County Commission, 45 percent to the School Board and 10 percent to the cities), but the BOCC will distribute its percentage differently to help attract economic incentives, as well as to take care of the already-existing businesses in the County.
“Other than transportation,” said Gallagher, “the biggest job for the Penny is creating economic incentives.”
Twenty percent of the BOCC’s take will go towards job creation and economic development through a “Job & Economic Opportunity Trust Fund.” This fund will be used to pay for business incentives for qualified target industries, which include manufacturing, industrial or office type businesses, such as Raymond James Financial or T. Rowe Price. In addition, these businesses also must create at least 10 jobs that meet or exceed the Tampa Bay Median Wage Index, which is currently at about $35,000. The fund also will pay to create support services for start-up businesses and to educate and train the workforce.
The BOCC also will set aside 40 percent of its share of the tax for transportation improvements, 20 percent for public safety and 20 percent to acquire environmental lands for conservation.
In the public safety area, funding will go towards Pasco County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) vehicles and laptops, Pasco County Fire Rescue (PCFR) vehicles and laptops, an upgrade to the Public Safety Radio System and the replacement of Fire Station #13 in the Quail Hollow area of Wesley Chapel.
Of the 40-percent that will be allocated to transportation, the biggest projects that would benefit the Wesley Chapel area are a planned I-75 interchange at Overpass Rd. (north of the S.R, 54 exit) and new bus bays placed at strategic positions along S.R. 54.
“The most pressing need for the county right now is transportation,” said Gallagher. He also mentioned the idea of one day having Wi-fi on all buses and bus lanes in the county’s medians, but as of right now, he said, “these are just ideas.”
On the education side, of the 40 percent of the tax dollars given to the Board, 77 percent will go towards the improvement and remodeling of current Pasco County schools, 16 percent will go towards technology upgrades for schools, 4 percent will go towards remodeling career training spaces —such as those at Marchman Technical Education Center in New Port Richey and at Zephyrhills High) and the final 3 percent will go towards other campus safety improvements and equipment. The original Penny tax paid to build Double Branch Elementary in Wesley Chapel, along with three other schools.
During the meeting, WCCC president-elect Jeff Novotny brought up the point that many of the Penny projects don’t directly affect Wesley Chapel, as most benefit the western part of the County.
“In my opinion, the Penny is a very critical item,” said Wiregrass Ranch Development of Regional Impact (DRI) owner/developer Don Porter of the Porter Family Trust. “It’s such a simple and straightforward tax. Tell me anyone with a rational mind that would vote ‘No.’ You can see what your money bought.”
Several other topics were covered during the meeting as well, such as the still-controversial Mansfield Blvd. (in Meadow Pointe)-to-Kinnan St. (in New Tampa) connector at the Pasco/Hillsborough line, east of Bruce B. Downs (BBD) Blvd.
“It’s still closed,” said Gallagher with a laugh. “But it’s an issue that will sooner or later make it onto the County Commission agenda.”
Gallagher also reiterated his excitement for the Fields at Wiregrass sports complex that is currently being negotiated between the Porter family and the County, as well as the long-awaited development of the Cypress Creek Town Center DRI.
“I’m excited about anything that pulls money out of Hillsborough County,” he said. “Everyone used to spend their money and do their shopping down south. Now, it’s all going to come home.”
Gallagher gave no projection on a timeframe for the development of Cypress Creek, but insisted that it is moving forward and will happen.
“This is the most exciting time in Pasco County,” he said. “In the next five to eight years, you’ll really see it.”