The loss of millions of dollars in state grant money for road projects next year, is prompting the Santa Rosa County Commission to explore other revenue streams. One possibility is a hike in the county’s gas tax.
Since 2010, the Small County Outreach Program at the Department of Transportation has funneled nearly $7 million to Santa Rosa for local road projects. Officials are now looking at how to offset losing eligibility for future grants because of a growing population. Commission Chairman Don Salter says that growth has landed the county somewhere between a “small” and a “not yet large” county.
“With that said, we’ve lost those transportation grants that we depended on each year to help pave, or resurface some of our large county roads," said Salter. “We were eligible for two grants a year. In some years, it was anywhere between $500,000 and $1 million.”
According to the Census Bureau, Santa Rosa’s population was 151,000 in 2010 – exceeding the 150,000 limit for SCOP eligibility. An estimate released in 2013 shows the population is now more than 161,000.
SCOP grants pay 75% of approved road projects, and the counties pick up the remainder. Salter says if nothing else, there is a regional precedent for a gas tax increase.
“Escambia County last year raised their gas tax to offset some of their public transportation,” Salter said. “Okaloosa County had to do the same thing to cover some of their drainage problems. But the gas tax was designed to specifically cover transportation costs.”
The tax has remained a nickel a gallon for the better part of a quarter-century. At this point, Salter’s unsure of just how much of a hike would be considered, if any. Santa Rosa County appears to be very limited in exploring other possible revenue streams. For one thing, there’s no Local Option Sales Tax as the one in Escambia County.
Salter and his fellow Commissioners plan to hold a workshop on January 28 to address the overall issues facing the Santa Rosa County. Replacing the SCOP funding is expected to be at or near the top of the agenda.
The theme for the workshop, says Salter, is “Quit Kicking the Can Down the Road.”
“We’ve got a lot of projects like (replacing) the courthouse and some of our transportation projects, where we’ve known that need is going to be there,” said Salter. “And we’ve kicked the can down the road, kicked the can down the road. And that’s caught up with us now, so we’re going to have to figure out how to deal with that.”
If the Commission decides to raise the gas tax, Salter recognizes it could be a tough sell to constituents. But he says it could become a situation of “pay now (gas tax), or pay more later (a higher property tax).”