Last month, Santa Rosa County voters approved a half-cent local option sales tax for infrastructure, but rejected a half-penny tax for construction of a new courthouse in downtown Milton.
The failure of the referendum means the courthouse issue is on hold as county leaders regroup.
When the last of the August 30 Primary ballots were counted the margin of defeat for the proposed courthouse sales tax was just 819 votes.
“I was disappointed to have come so close, yet still be so far from a resolution to our issues that we have with the current judicial facility in downtown Milton,” said Santa Rosa County Commission Chairman Lane Lynchard.
Although encouraged by passage of the sales tax for infrastructure, Lynchard acknowledged they had not yet hit the mark when it comes to a tax for the courthouse, especially with voters in Navarre, where one precinct cast 800 votes against.
In 2014, a similar courthouse tax referendum, calling for a full penny levy, also failed.
This time around, it seems to have come down to location - other than downtown Milton – that’s more convenient to residents in the south end of the county.
“My district Gulf Breeze, by and large, was in favor of the courthouse,” said Lynchard, noting that the vote was fairly evenly split throughout the county. “I think we just need to do a better job of conveying the benefits of whatever location we end up choosing, whether it’s the downtown location or if we move to a different location in the future.”
At their first board committee meeting after the vote, on Sept 6, Commissioner Bob Cole said he was ready to abandon the downtown Milton site and move on to Plan B.
“We owe this much to the City of Milton and all the businesses and other property owners, enabling them to start planning their future, designing a business plan that will fit in the downtown area,” said Cole. “It was stated by the city manager that the city of Milton can return to their Historic Downtown Masterplan.”
At that meeting, attorney Jennifer Byrom reiterated her family’s offer to donate a parcel of property in east Milton. “It’s 15 acres, right there on Highway 90, within two miles of the Sheriff’s Department, within two miles of the jail,” Byrom said.
Wallis Mahut also prefers the East Milton option, noting that the courthouse would be out of the congested center of town, with access from Highway 87 and from the Garcon Point Bridge via I-10.
Scott Kemp of Gulf Breeze preferred moving forward at another location, without another vote.
“If you guys can figure out how to fund this thing for $40 a year through our taxes and put it somewhere centrally located, down around Avalon, where people on the south end can get something out of it, then we might as well go forward,” said Kemp.
Commission Chairman Lynchard knows there is much to do, but says he has NO plans to move forward with any action on the courthouse issue until after the November Election, when the District One vacancy is officially filled. Sam Parker won the Republican Primary and is expected to take the District one seat vacated by Jayer Williamson in June to run for the State House District 3.
On the issue of funding, Santa Rosa has a 6.0953 millage rate, which is well below the state average. But, Chairman Lynchard is pretty adamant that an increase in property taxes to pay for courthouse construction is really not an option.
“Property taxes in Santa Rosa are still about 15% lower than they were 8 years ago, still haven’t recovered from the recession, property tax collection this year will be about $7M less than in 2007-08,” Lynchard said. “We have 20% fewer employees than we did 10 years ago, but we have 30K more residents in SR that we’re providing services for.”
There are also no plans to consider a bond issue, which requires a dedicated revenue source or an increase in property taxes.
So that brings us back to a local option sales tax, which Lynchard believes is the best option for raising the $35 million -$40 million needed to pay for a scaled-down courthouse structure.
He points out that a half-cent sales tax can generate about $7 million a year and could pay off a courthouse in about 5 years. Additionally, the general budget wouldn’t be impacted, and visitors to Santa Rosa County will to help pay for it.
But, going after another sales tax means holding another referendum, which isn’t likely until 2018. In the meantime, the county commission has a lot of work to do, including definitive action on a new site.
“The board has to make that call, to make the decision on what location we want to put on the ballot, so I think that’s something we need to decide and move forward with,” said Lynchard.
Commissioners probably won’s begin to seriously revisit the courthouse issue until early next year. By then, collection of the half penny tax for infrastructure will be underway.