Okaloosa County residents will have the chance to vote on a half-cent surtax to fund infrastructure projects around the county this Election Day.
The half-cent tax, otherwise known as a local option sales tax, reduces the need to raise property taxes and “spreads the pain” of taxes to residents and visitors of Okaloosa County, said Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel.
Previous attempts at instituting a half-cent sales tax referendums have failed, most recently in 2006. The decision will be up to voters again on Nov. 6. Ketchel said the additional revenue is needed for critical infrastructure updates.
“To put it into perspective, it costs $1 million for one mile of asphalt,” she said. “We don’t have that kind of money in the county budget. We have the lowest ad valorem…we have to get the revenue from someplace.”
If the half-cent tax were voted in, it could generate $19 million annually for public safety, transportation, and stormwater issues. Money collected will be spent in Okaloosa County and can only be used for critical infrastructure needs over a 10-year period.
Money generated could also be used to leverage federal and state grants. Ketchel said Triumph Gulf Coast has pledged a total of $65 million, but the county would need to have “some skin in the game.”
Constituents can find a list of possible projects that would be funded with the sales tax on a website created by the county.
“We’ve reached a critical point in our county with a population of over 200,000,” Ketchel said. “We have stormwater needs — pipes in the south end of the county that are 40 to 50 years old…we have hundreds of miles of dirt roads that need to be paved. These aren’t just luxury items.”
Okaloosa County is one of 11 counties without a local option sales tax, according to the county’s fact sheet. In the local area, Escambia, Santa Rosa and Bay counties all have a local option sales tax.
The Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office is a supporter of the tax. The agency has shared its support on social media with videos and soundbites from Sheriff Larry Ashley. The county is at a "critical point" to maintain its quality of life.
"If (tourists) don't help subsidize the cost of police, fire, ambulance or sanitation, it moves to property owners or we don't have that service," he said.
There is no organized effort to oppose the tax, although OSCO public information officer Michele Nicholson said she's noticed a few negative comments about the proposed tax on the Sheriff's page. One of them was a resident who worried that higher costs would send tourists to Missippi or Alabama.
"Where does the bed tax go?" he wrote. "I know we are tourist-centric in Florida, but at the same time we need to be smart not to tax and fee all the tourists to death."
Ketchel said she understands that the word “tax” comes with negative feelings, which is why the board established a citizen advisory committee to assure government accountability.
“People don’t trust the government,” Ketchel said. “This is a good faith effort so that people will know every dollar collected is spent on those projects. These people are not paid, they are volunteers.”
One big supporter of the sales tax is the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce which set up a political action committee, Okaloosa Makes Cents to educate and advocate. According to Okaloosa Makes Cents, 56 percent of the Okaloosa County annual tax is generated during the tourist season, which means anyone purchasing goods in the country will contribute to the funds.
“The chamber has been on this bus for four years now,” said Ted Corcoran, president/CEO of the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber. “It’s time. Okaloosa County has been around for 103 years and no elected body has ever put aside necessary funds to maintain and plan for the future. This is an investment in the community.”