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New Courthouse Hinges On Tax & Location Votes

In 2002, voters in Santa Rosa County rejected a one-cent sales tax to fund a new courthouse.  Now 12 years later, they’re being asked again to support an extra penny tax for construction of a new judicial center. And, this time around, the General Election ballot includes three measures regarding location preference.

The Santa Rosa County Commissioners has spent much of the past few months educating residents on the need for a new courthouse, as well as making the case that the sales tax increase is the most reasonable option for paying for it.

That way, visitors to our county and passers through get to help share in the cost of this and it’s not just on the back of the people who pay taxes, on advalorem property owners,” said Commissioner Bob Cole.

Adding to that argument is Board vice-chairman Don Salter, who said the board probably couldn’t collect enough in property taxes, even if they wanted to.

Santa Rosa County, across the state, we rank in the lowest quartile per capita of total taxation, so we don’t have a lot of different types of revenue to do large projects,” said Salter, who adds that with a project of this magnitude their only option is to ask citizens to support a local option sales tax.

If the tax referendum is approved, it would increase the sales tax in Santa Rosa from six percent to seven percent. Literature provided by the county estimates an additional $122 per year for families with median annual incomes of nearly $57,500. Also, it’s been pointed out that Santa Rosa County residents pay 7% sales tax when they shop in Escambia County.

In Santa Rosa, the additional penny would be collected beginning January 1, 2015 and continuing no longer than December 31, 2019. 

The one-cent tax increase is expected to generate between $10 million and $12 million each year. Board members say collection of the tax for five years should be enough to cover the cost of the new courthouse, which is estimated at $50 million, no matter which of the proposed locations is selected.

After almost two years of discussion, for voters it’s come down to three sites –all of which are along Highway 90. The options include a site in Pea Ridge west of Avalon Boulevard, in Downtown Milton near the current facility, and in East Milton near Peter Prince Airport.

Each site has its strengths and weaknesses, with access from the north and south ends of the county among the factors.

The Pea Ridge location, the largest and most expensive, was initially chosen because it’s closest to the demographic center of the county.

“The board had put an option on a 22-acre parcel that includes the courthouse and has room for growth…and also has out-parcels in the front of the building to be able to control what would ultimately go there for the next 75 years, whether a county facility or an appropriate development comes along to put it there,” said County Administrator Hunter Walker.

The East Milton site is free, because the 15-acre parcel is being donated to the county. But its biggest challenge is the current lack of infrastructure and Commissioner Salter says there are other considerations of note.

“The East Milton site is actually off the road, a pretty good distance…so we would not be able to control the property in front of the courthouse, and I think it’s important what would or wouldn’t go there. The west Highway 90 site, we would own the courthouse site and property to the front,” he said. On the downtown location, Salter says it sits in a flood plain, and he believes that choice will be limited when it comes to future growth and development.

Each of the sites will include the construction of new parking spaces. The plan calls for 500 parking spots at each of the proposed sites in East Milton and Pea Ridge. For the downtown site, 225 additional parking spaces will be constructed.

There’s been a lot of confusion as to total available parking downtown, and whether it will be enough - particularly on jury selection days – and given that about a third of the 225 will be reserved for courthouse employees.

It’s been enough of an issue, that City of Milton Planning and Zoning Director Randy Jorgenson has been a fixture at each of the town hall meetings held over the past two months.

“Two-hundred-twenty-five new parking stalls. (Also) in close proximity to the current courthouse, there are 322 other public parking places for a total of approximately 550. There are 200 unregulated surface parking stalls that are also available to meet the court’s needs for a total of 750,” Jorgenson said, adding there is room for more if needed down the road.

One of the biggest questions is what will happen to Milton’s downtown core if voters decide the courthouse should move.

First, though, there’s the election and a binding referendum involving a 5-year one-cent increase in the sales tax. And, there are non-binding questions regarding the three proposed locations for the facility. Again, those sites are Downtown Milton, East Milton, and Pea Ridge.

The Santa Rosa County Commission has vowed to go with the site that gets the most votes and board members hope residents will take the time to weigh in.  After all, it’s an important vote that will have long-term implications, possibly for the next 100 years.

Early voting continues through Saturday, November 1, with the final day of voting on Tuesday, Nov. 4.

More information about the courthouse initiative is on the Santa Rosa County website.