File it under the maxim first uttered by Rahm Emanuel in 2009: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”
At a news conference held by Clearwater public officials on how the city and Pinellas County is handling recovery efforts four days after Hurricane Irma pushed through the region, County Commission Chair Janet Long and Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos made a flat-out pitch for voters to support the Penny for Pinellas tax that comes before voters in November.
Long paid tribute to the county’s Emergency Operations Center in Largo, the $81 million, 218,000-square-foot public safety complex created in 2014 and built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane and provide sufficient supplies to house 700 essential county and state agency personnel for up to three weeks.
“The system that has been put in place is a result of that building being able to being built is positioned by the Penny for Pinellas, which is on our ballot in November,” Long said. “And that money coming in is distributed in a formula between the county and the municipalities.”
But she was just getting warmed up.
“It is very significant for those of you in the media to know that 75 percent of the infrastructure is paid for by the Penny for Pinellas,” Long continued. “Without that money, your local governments would be forced to raise the millage rates considerably to provide the same amount of services that you’re receiving today. So please keep that in mind. This is av very critical impel that we have all lived through about how critically important local government is to provide safety and welfare for our citizens.”
“Madam Chairwoman, I was going to ask you the question: How did you pay for the Emergency Operations Center?” Cretekos said while smiling. “It is something that we need to keep in mind, how important that Penny for Pinellas for the infrastructure improvements that we’re talking about making.”
Although tax referendums haven’t been too popular with Tampa Bay area voters in recent years, Penny for Pinellas has been an exception. Narrowly approved in 1989, the first time it appeared on the ballot, the penny tax easily won re-approval in municipal elections in March 1997 and 2007. The tax is geared to be spent only on long-term capital infrastructure projects that support the local community and is shared between the county and its 24 municipalities.
After the St. Petersburg City Council put in a request to the county earlier this year that a portion of their next revenues from the tax should include at least $15 million for affordable housing, GOP county commission candidate Barbara Haselden objected, saying that the tax was strictly meant for only infrastructure projects.
The small-government activist said earlier this year if county officials refuse to make a commitment to all revenues from the next Penny be used for infrastructure, “citizens should vote NO on Penny for Pinellas.”
If Pinellas voters approve the tax on November 7, the funds will renew for an additional decade, from 2020-2030.