Power behind the penny

Tico Perez strides quickly down the wide hallway of the Orlando law offices of Baker and Hostetler. His powerful torso is covered by a T-shirt pushing the penny sales tax hike, worn in stark contrast to the business attire of most of those working in the suite of offices on the 23rd floor of the SunTrust Building.;;After a firm handshake and hearty welcome, the former wrestler and current co-chairman of the Common Cents campaign settles into his chair in a corner office featuring windows from which he can see much of downtown, including the offices of the Orlando Utility Commission, which he aspires to oversee. Later, back in the hall, another attorney playfully confronts Perez over his T-shirt, prompting Perez to retort, "Climb on.";;This combination of physical and political power suggests that Perez could carry the entire campaign himself. But he has lots of help: co-chair Joanie Schirm, paid staffers, volunteers, and, as of Oct. 17, $458,193 in money and in-kind contributions, according to the Common Cents campaign finance report filed with the Orange County Supervisor of Elections.;;Asked to summarize the contents of the report, Perez offers: "More than half of the checks come from individual citizens. It's a groundswell.";;Technically, he is correct. But analysis of the 42-page report, which lists 358 contributors giving an average of $1,279, also shows 70 contributions of $1,000 or more from businesses, plus eight in-kind contributions of products or services worth $1,000 or more.;;Atop the list of deep-pocketed backers was Universal Studios, with a $50,000 contribution. Four companies -- The Tribune Co., owners of The Orlando Sentinel (which, according to Perez, has published nearly 50 pro-tax editorials); Lockheed Martin; The Walt Disney Co.; and GMRI, formerly Red Lobster Restaurants -- shelled out $25,000 apiece. ;;While such a campaign budget -- which still shows $99,925 in reserves -- might seem ample, more contributions can be expected with two weeks remaining. More than 30,000 mail-in ballots already have been returned. But most of the more than 337,000 ballots sent out are not expected until much closer to the 7 p.m. Nov. 4 deadline. Thus, the blitz of radio, TV, newspaper and mail advertisements will heighten. "We spent a lot of money throughout. We're hitting pretty hard right now," Perez says. ;;About one-seventh of the Common Cents pot -- $64,000 -- came from out-of-state contributors convinced that Orange County voters should up the sales tax to raise $2.2 billion in 10 years for roads, schools, parks and flood control projects. Among those contributors are Pizzuti Development Inc. of Columbus, Ohio, a major commercial developer in Orange County, which gave $5,000, and CH2M Hill Inc., of Denver, which matched Pizzuti. Spokesman Brent Temmer says, CH2M Hill, a worldwide company with 7,000 employees and "offices all over Florida," including Orlando, felt it needed to show its support. "We understand politicians in Florida wouldn't get behind this kind of an issue without a strong response from the business community. That was the main reason. Any projects that would come out of this, of course, would be beneficial to us. We would have an opportunity to compete for them." ;;Bob Bomia, chairman of Citizens Opposed to Hiking the Sales Tax, one of two anti-tax groups, says the contributions were made by companies hoping to secure their spots in line to cash in on contracts. "It's an investment for them," he says. In contrast to Common Cents' resources, the two anti-tax groups listed no out-of state contributors in reporting a total of $8,387 in contributions heading into the home stretch.;;Ax the Tax, the group perennially opposed to local tax hike proposals, collected $1,300 and already had spent $977. It lists one $1,000 contribution, from manufacturer George Daniels, and $332.15 in reserves. Headed by campaign consultant Doug Guetzloe, this group made the news recently by providing signs to a group of students who protested the issue at the recent Hob Nob, an annual gathering in Loch Haven Park of politicians and the politically active.;;But the heavy lifting has been done by the group headed by Bomia, an unemployed computer consultant. On Oct. 20, Bomia, a tall, graying man of medium build, voted at the elections office. His group reported $7,087 in contributions, all but $31 spent by Oct. 17. Jefferson Smurfit Corp. of Jacksonville, which commonly backs conservative causes, provided the campaign with 6,000 signs valued at $6,000. Only two $1,000 contributors are listed: the Orange County Republican Executive Committee and Contract Inc., a local hotel-products manufacturer.;;Perez's firm contributed $1,500 of office space to the Common Cents campaign; Bomia is working from a spare bedroom in his home. Also, Common Cents has paid its campaign coordinator $9,427 and an assistant $1,332 (not to mention $25,000 plus expenses to a consultant); Bomia says everyone working against the issue is doing so for free. His finance report lists $670.37 in expenses such as copies and mileage, and nothing for his services. (Not listed is the use of a pickup that Bomia says was lent to him by a contributor.) Nonetheless, Bomia predicts of the tax: "It's going down.";;Perez sees it differently. "I'm cautiously optimistic. I think it's going to pass, but we've got to make sure everybody's educated."
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