There is a question of whether it addresses the true problems of the county.
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The November 7th referendum to renew the "Pennies for Pinellas" tax is not a slam dunk. The Pinellas County Commissioners would have us believe it is a done deal. Not so fast. There is a lack of accountability in the wording which will not address the problems of Pinellas County effectively. To illustrate:
Pinellas voters will remember the 200 million gallons of sewage St. Petersburg discharged into local neighborhoods and waterways in 2015 and 2016, along with other spills throughout Pinellas County. Some might believe the County corrected the problem since then. In reality, No, it did not, as proven by Hurricane Irma. Most residents are unaware sewage problems erupted during the storm. Throughout the county, 33 spills were reported to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) totaling millions of gallons. According to the Department, Clearwater alone experienced sewage spills of just under two million gallons, and St. Petersburg just under 500,000 gallons during this period. Sewage spills are common when inundated with water, but this was after only 3.67 inches of rain and low tides, a scenario that should have been easily accommodated.
The point is, in terms of Pinellas County's sewage problems, we're far from being out of the woods.
Coupled with this is the county's electrical grid which also failed during Irma. Over 100,000 Duke Energy customers in Pinellas lost power, some for up to a week or more. Fallen trees were often the culprit. Workers eventually restored power replacing some 3,000 poles and many transformers, but did nothing to assure such an outage occurs again. This is like putting several fingers in a dike, when the dike itself should be rebuilt. Perhaps burying power lines is the answer, and perhaps other alternatives. The fact remains, what we have in place today is fragile and prone to failure from high winds and even moderate rain, both indigenous to our county. What is necessary is to look at the problem from 50,000 feet and formulate a new alternative.
Enter the "Pennies for Pinellas" referendum which will renew the sales tax for another ten years. If you will recall, the "Pennies" tax was initially created in 1990 to support infrastructure needs, such as the Bayside Bridge. Since its creation, it has been used for other pet projects of the Pinellas Planning Department, such as parks and recreation and other projects, including emergency and law enforcement vehicles. Interestingly, most other counties do not have a "Pennies" tax, yet seem to find ways to pay for such vehicles.
If passed, the referendum will result in a whooping $2 billion over ten years. However, the language used on the ballot is such that if it passes, the Planning Department is free to spend it anyway they want, not by what is critically needed. The question on the November 7th ballot reads as follows:
County Referendum Question-
Ten (10) Year Extension of the Penny for Pinellas One-Cent (1¢) Infrastructure Sales Surtax - Shall the levy of the Penny for Pinellas one-cent (1¢) local infrastructure sales surtax be extended for an additional ten (10) years to finance county and municipal projects, including roads, bridges, flood and sewer spill prevention, water quality, trails, parks, environmental preservation, public safety facilities, hurricane sheltering, vehicles, technology, land acquisition for affordable housing, capital projects supporting economic development (pursuant to section 212.055(2)(d)3, Florida Statutes), and other authorized infrastructure projects.
According to Barb Haselden, candidate for County Commissioner in District 6 (northern St. Pete, from Gulf to Bay), "This would be giving the county commission a blank check for $2 Billion Dollars!" She believes the wording is too vague and doesn't focus on such things as the county's sewage, storm water and electrical problems, areas she is committed to addressing.
There is one big problem though, it is too late to change the wording on the ballot, which will start being mailed out to absentee voters beginning in early October. Haselden's advice, "Just say NO to the referendum." Correct the verbiage and vote on it again next year.
Those who want to see the "Pennies" referendum pass are counting on a naive public who will be apathetic in terms of voting in an off year. Whereas heavy voter turnout will likely defeat the referendum, a light turnout will assure its passage. In other words, someone is trying to pull a fast one on unsuspecting voters in Pinellas County.
The "Pennies for Pinellas" referendum is the only question that will appear uniformly on all ballots in the County. This highlights the fact, this is not just a St. Petersburg problem, but one that is county wide, and why it is important for all Pinellas County voters to get out the vote, be it north, south, east, or west.
Keep the Faith!
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Tim Bryce is a freelance writer and management consultant in the Tampa Bay area of Florida.
For Tim’s columns, see: timbryce.com
Copyright © 2017 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.
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