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Pros and Cons of Hiking Santa Rosa's LOST

Sandra Averhart

Voters in Santa Rosa County go to the polls for a special referendum October 8, to decide if the Local Option Sales Tax will be doubled from a half-cent to a full penny.

Almost 60% of those voters approved the half-cent sales tax in 2016, after rejecting the notion three times between 2002 and 2016 to fund a new courthouse. 

“Another half-cent on top of the half-cent would equate to about $180 million over ten years,” Santa Rosa County Commissioner Don Salter said. “Or $18.2 million each year.”

Among Florida’s 67 counties, Salter says Santa Rosa has the second-lowest total tax per citizen rate at $815 — thanks in part to no property tax hikes in more than three decades.

“Matter of fact, we’ve been able to cut the millage rate over the last 18 years three different times,” Salter said. “[So we] could have a more user-based revenue source; the gas tax and a sales tax. And those are paid for by those who use the infrastructure, versus property taxes [where] more people just sit at home.”

Roughly 50% of Local Option Sales Tax proceeds go for infrastructure. Another portion goes to public safety, mainly to the Santa Rosa Sheriff’s Office and Sheriff Bob Johnson.

“In this year’s budget, [Johnson] has requested an additional $5 million, which we have to fund,” said Salter. “As the world becomes more and more evil, the citizens expect to have better and more law enforcement. And that’s why the sheriff has to increase his budget so much.”

Based on a study by the Haas Business Center at the University of West Florida, Salter anticipates 25 to 30% of LOST revenue would be paid by visitors.

Meanwhile, a new citizens group has organized, aimed at defeating this latest sales tax attempt.

“Do I truly, really care about a penny [sic] sales tax increase? Honestly, I don’t,” said Elaine Smith, who heads Santa Rosa County Voters against Overcrowded Roads and Schools.

Credit SRC Voters Against via Facebook

Santa Rosa is the 12th-fastest-growing county in Florida, according to state figures, and Smith argues that the taxpayers will end up footing the bill for new roads and other infrastructure. “The point is, the last half-cent that went for a LOST tax – that doesn’t even expire until 2021,” Smith said. “They already have one, so there is no reason for this, other than to quickly get funds to shore up the infrastructure so that homes could continually be built.”

The group’s argument is for impact fees — which they contend would improve and grow at the same rate as subdivision development. Smith contends the tax hike would benefit a number of builders and developers in the area who have contributed to support its approval. But she says they’ve been informed there are only three alternatives to LOST – and impact fees aren’t included.

“We were told they could float a bond [issue], and we could also raise the sales tax; and those were the only two options we were told were available,” said Smith. “We spoke with another commissioner who, I believe, brought up the lower impact fee. The state of Florida actually recommends it, as a viable alternative to uncontrollable growth.”

Impact fees, according to Salter, would fail to raise enough money to pay for all of the county’s needs — and can only be used for future impacts.

“In other words, if there’s a development around ‘Five Point Intersection,’ that money generated from that impact could only be used to improve the infrastructure that that development is creating,” Salter said. “It cannot be used for law enforcement; cannot be used for fire protection.”

Salter added that new homebuyers already pay more in taxes than longtime residents because home values nosedived during the recession in 2008 and 2009.

Two other sticking points, says Smith, are the election’s cost – $225,000 according to the Santa Rosa Supervisor of Elections Office – along with what they believe is circumventing a new law that requires tax votes to be held during a regular election.

“If this goes through, we’re going to continue to fund the profits of developers and builders who come in [and] sell our schools,” claims Smith. “They sell our roads, they sell our way of life. And they’ve done such a good job with that, that they’ve destroyed it.”

“If a county wants to ask for a tax increase, then it must be placed on a general election ballot; so that will be effective starting next year. That just became law in this past legislative session,” said Santa Rosa Elections Supervisor Tappie Villane. She adds the new law also requires a supermajority — at least two-thirds — for approval.

When voters gear up for the referendum, Villane has a couple of reminders.

“There is no early voting for this special election; so if people are not able to make it to their polling place on October 8, this coming Saturday [Sept.] 28 by 5 p.m. is the last day to request a ballot to be mailed to them.”

Special elections, especially those in years without an existing election cycle, run the risk of a low turnout. Villane says that figure hovers around the 10 percent level.

“As with every election we hope to have more of a voter turnout; but a lot of times a special election – or even sometimes a primary election – just doesn’t garner that many voters,” Villane said. “Because it’s not on a person’s radar as opposed to, say, a presidential election.”

But low turnout cannot be placed at the Election Office’s door. When preparing for an election — regular or special — Villane says all are equal in their eyes.

“We do the exact same advertising,” said Villane. “Actually, with a special election, there’s [sic] a couple of additional ads. They’re called ‘Notice of Election’ that we have to run in the newspapers.”

Santa Rosa County commissioners have been pointing to the initial half-cent tax, and the nearly $13 million generated the past three years. Besides public safety, they say the money’s gone for parks and recreation; road resurfacing, and bridge construction.

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.