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Santa Rosa Commission Candidates Debate Courthouse Issue

Sandra Averhart

Santa Rosa County voters are being asked again to approve a sales tax to fund construction of a new judicial center. The referendum will appear on the August 30 Primary Election ballot. It has been the subject of continued debate among current Santa Rosa Commissioners and is one of the issues facing the candidates seeking election to the board. 

Twice since 2002, Santa Rosa voters have rejected a one-cent Local Option Sales Tax for a new courthouse, most recently voting down a multi-question referendum on funding and location in 2014.

This time, county commissioners have simplified the ballot, asking for just a half-cent sales tax over five years that would generate approximately $35 million.

Still, passage is not a given. So, that begs the question about the possible use of ad valorem taxes. County commission candidates were asked about that at the Pace Community Center Monday at a forum hosted by the conservative Santa Rosa Tea Party Patriots, which earlier this year came out in opposition to the possibility of a full penny to be collected over a 10-year period.

Eric Witt served as moderator for the candidate forum.

“With the failure to pass the LOST, the Local Option Sales Tax, and being a newly elected commissioner, how will you fund the new court house without raising property taxes?,” Witt asked.

“I won’t,” responded veteran District 3 Republican incumbent Don Salter, who’s seeking reelection to a fifth term in office.

Credit Sandra Averhart
Santa Rosa County District 3 incumbent Don Salter exchanges greetings Milton Mayor Wes Meis and other voters following a Tea Party forum this week.

And there’s no other way to do it, other than through a dedicated source of revenue like the local option sales tax where everybody pays and not just the property owners. I have fought for years, trying to take pressure off the property tax. Let everybody pay for those capital improvement projects. Without the local option sales tax we’ll never get a courthouse,” Salter said.

Salter’s District 3 Republican Primary opponent is Marvin Fowler, Sr., who served one term on the Santa Rosa County Commission from 1984-1988.

“Well, first off let’s don’t count our chicks before they hatch” said Fowler, referring to the referendum to appear on next month’s Primary ballot. Let’s see what the people say and then we’ll address that situation. Whatever it takes we’re going to need to do it. I’m not for raising property taxes.”

Although not on the primary ballot, Aubrey Penton, a No Party Affiliation candidate for the District 3 seat, also participated in the forum. Penton worked about 25 years at American Cyanamid in addition to other jobs.  He too expressed opposition to a hike in property taxes to pay for the courthouse.

A half-cent sales tax, if it does not pass, we’re going to have to reword it and educate the public about our needs since we are no longer a small county and we don’t get as much money from the state,” Penton said.

The Santa Rosa County Commission District 1 candidates were also asked the question about funding the courthouse without raising property taxes.

“I’ve toured the courthouse top to bottom. It’s terrible. Something should have been done a long time back,” said Mark Cotton, who has worked in the real estate industry for more than three decades.

Cotton lost his first bid for the District 1 seat, losing the 2012 Republican Primary Election to Jayer Williamson, who resigned to run for a seat in the state House.

At Monday’s candidate forum, Cotton was the only one to put forth a funding alternative to include a Municipal Services Taxing Unit or MSTU.

“If the LOST is not available to us, and ad valorem (increase) is not available to us, that leaves very little,” said Cotton. “And, I think an MSTU would be the only thing, much along the lines of what the fire department has now.”

Also seeking the District 1 seat is Republican Sam Parker, a former sheriff’s deputy, who owns a real estate investment company. Parker agrees with other candidates in that funding options are limited; adding that if the referendum fails to pass again, the county should take a step back for a reassessment and a little help.

Credit Sandra Averhart
Santa Rosa County residents packed the Pace Community Center Monday for a candidate forum by the SR Tea Party.

“I would strongly feel that we form a board of citizen advisories to study and help us work hand in hand in looking at the sites that were available with the data that was available at that time to select a site,” said Parker, noting that reeducating the public also will be necessary.

On the issue of an oversight committee, the Santa Rosa County Commission is slated to take up the matter at Thursday’s regular board meeting at the behest of the political group Moving Santa Rosa Forward. It will be held at 9 a.m. at the Santa Rosa County Administrative Complex, 6495 Caroline St., Milton, FL.

As for where a new courthouse should be located, a majority of board members already have voted in favor of a site adjacent to the old one in downtown Milton.

In responding to a citizen question about location at Monday’s Tea Party forum, the District 3 candidates weighed in. Salter reiterated his support for a site near Avalon Blvd. and U.S. Highway 90, but agreed to follow the will of the board and the people. Fowler said they should support the 2014 referendum results in favor of the downtown site. Penton suggested another vote by the people on the issue of location for the new courthouse. 

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.