York County’s ‘Pennies’ program draws interest from Florida group

Posted July 29, 2013 8:03 pm | Filed under Featured, Local News

Since 1997, York County voters have approved more than a half-billion dollars for road improvements with a self-imposed one-cent sales tax.

$545,382,160 — to be exact.

And while the program, which has since been dubbed ‘Pennies for Progress,’ has made a wave across the state, county officials say it’s now earning interest from governments and third parties across the Southeast.

Adrian Taylor serves on the Board of Directors of the Gainesville, Fla., Chamber of Commerce.

Taylor and a delegation from Gainesville made a visit to York County earlier this month, wanting to find out more about the inner workings of the Pennies program.

“We needed to know more from a technical standpoint how the list of projects was created and prioritized and how the ballot was formed from a legal standpoint,” Taylor said.

Last fall, a similar sales tax referendum went before Alachua County, Fla., voters, a referendum that Taylor said, “failed miserably.”

In York County, the 1997 Pennies referendum narrowly passed approval. In 2003, voters approved phase two of the project with a 73 percent vote and in 2011, by an 82 percent affirmative vote.

“The biggest measure in the level of trust was the overwhelming majority that passed the last referendum,” said York County Councilman Chad Williams, who chairs the council’s Pennies for Progress Committee. “And because we’ve been at this ourselves, there have been struggles that we’ve had in getting to this point.”

But Taylor says after visiting York County in person, he has a better idea of how future sales tax referenda may fare better with voters.

“We didn’t communicate the issue well,” Taylor said. “It was promoted by elected officials and that impacted how much marketing they could do.”

Now, the Gainesville Chamber hopes to change the conversation twofold: by changing the model of how the list of projects are selected and prioritized and moving away from the model of proportionate sharing of sales tax revenues.

“Instead of acting like kids at the table competing for the biggest piece of pie, we need to be adults and see how we can help Alachua County as a whole.” Taylor said.

Under the previous sales tax referendum, municipalities in Alachua County split the $30 million in yearly funding based on population size.

“That means the City of Gainesville would have received the largest share. But Gainesville doesn’t have the greatest need.”

In August, Taylor and the Gainesville Chamber will meet with members of the County Commission and local municipal governments. They’ll take examples of what they learned in York County, from the project lists to marketing pieces to how a citizen-led effort was formed to help promote the project.

“We understand we will have to do something like that,” Taylor said. “We need to change the tone to one of how we can all work together.”