On the Primary Election ballot in Santa Rosa County, voters are being asked to support two half cent local option sales taxes. Both would be collected for five years, with one aimed at generating funds for infrastructure and capital projects. The other proposed (half-penny) tax is the latest effort to raise funds for a new county courthouse.
This is the second time in just two years that Santa Rosa commissioners have sought passage of a Local Option Sales Tax. In 2014, it was a full penny L-O-S-T to pay for a new courthouse, along with a separate ballot question on location. Ultimately, the downtown location received the most yes votes. But, yet again, the tax was rejected. So, they’re trying again this year.
“Well, there’re two things that are fundamentally different,” said Ed Carson, chairman of the chamber-based political organization Moving Santa Rosa Forward. “One is that we have two questions on the ballot. One is strictly for infrastructure and one strictly for the courthouse in Milton. I think that allows people that are mad about the location or the process with the courthouse, to still support the infrastructure piece.”
Carson says another difference is that this time his ‘Moving Santa Rosa’ group has taken over the public education effort. Instead of the Board of County Commissioners driving this effort, it’s citizens and business people who are making the case.
So during this primary election season, Carson and company have held a number of public meetings to make the case for both sales tax proposals, explaining to residents what they think are the benefits, especially to property owners in the county.
The stated benefits are that the Local Option Sales Tax is a consumption tax, paid for by everybody, not just property owners. Secondly, Carson says the LOSTs will take some of the burden off Santa Rosa County property owners, who on average are currently paying about twice the state average as a total revenue to the county. Thirdly, twenty-five percent of the sales tax revenue will come from outside the county. And, both taxes will sunset in five years.
Each of the half cent sales taxes will generate an estimated $35 million. All of the LOST revenue will stay in the area. And, Carson says these funds will allow Santa Rosa to compete for grants that require a local match.
“Another important thing is that we’ve asked the County Commission to stand up a citizens’ oversight committee and that’s to gauge the process, the efficacy and the use of the proceeds and we intend to every year publish a report card, so to speak,” Carson said.
Particularly, the oversight committee is to be established to ensure residents that the half cent sales tax for infrastructure is used to pay for things such as transportation and drainage improvements, new enhancements to libraries, parks and community centers, and public safety improvements and equipment.
At this point, whether each of the half-cent sales taxes will pass has come down to what the voters think.
WUWF News caught up with a few residents taking part in Early Voting.
David Walker of Milton says he’s in favor of both.
“I’ve been for the tax for the courthouse, because we desperately need one,” Walker said. “I’m just not in favor of keeping it in the downtown area, because of the whole problem with flooding and infrastructure down there. I think it should be moved somewhere else and should be in a more central location.”
Walker is a native of Santa Rosa County. He was a volunteer firefighter for 16 years and now works as an EMT, so he’s sensitive to public safety needs.
“The last time I checked a fire truck starts somewhere around a half-million dollars. And that’s not including equipment for firefighters. It takes somewhere around $2,000-$3,000 to outfit a man to go into a building...you can’t ask him to have second rate equipment.”
“As far as the sales tax for general use, I’m not supporting that. We need to live within our budget,” said Santa Rosa resident Vince Seeley, who does support limited collection of a sales tax for a new judicial center that’s to be built in downtown Milton near the existing courthouse.
“I don’t spend much time there, but I’ve been in it a couple of times, I used to be a process server and yea, I think we need to move forward with that,” Seeley said.
Given that the courthouse tax has a history of rejection, Seeley says he thinks residents might be ready to vote for a sales tax to pay for a new one. But he thinks it’s going to be close.
“Now that they’ve decided where it’s going to be (downtown Milton), I think we might be able to move forward with it,” said Seeley. “But, it’s not going to win by much if it wins.”
And, if the half penny tax for the court house finally wins approval, it will be due, in part, to the efforts of Moving Santa Rosa Forward and its chairman Ed Carson.
“I’m optimistic. I am,” said Carson.
Voters do have a choice. They can vote to approve each of the LOST ballot questions, reject both, or approve one and reject the other.