By REID TUCKER
The Highway 331 Blue Ribbon Task Force voted unanimously to recommend a voter referendum to for a local sales tax increase, needed to raise $75 million for the construction of a new bridge across Choctawhatchee Bay.
As reported in last week’s edition of this newspaper and in others, the task force held off on its recommendation at the group’s previous meeting on Thursday, Jan. 12. However, after another session of public comment and discussion among the five committee members on Jan. 19, it was concluded that the public should vote to decide whether or not to support a sales tax increase of up to 1 percent.
The task force recommended that the referendum contain language limiting the use of sales tax revenues to paying for the bridge and also that the tax, if approved, will irrevocably expire when the debt is paid, never to be extended. Furthermore, the task force was in favor of advising the County Commission to strongly consider tax increases of less than 1 percent should the referendum pass.
Much discussion at the last meeting was centered around whether or not it was possible to include multiple options – for example, toll, tax (or how much of one) or no bridge at all – on a proposed referendum. However, legal review showed that state statute stipulates the exact language of the referendum include only a vote for or against a tax. The other options would require further referendums, an action considered cost-prohibitive as well as possibly being incompatible with the timeline laid out by the Florida Department of Transportation.
FDOT is set to begin construction of the shore to shore bridge in 2013 if Walton County comes up its share of the money, if not, DOT will take its money elsewhere.
Should the referendum, which required 120 days’ notice, fail to pass when put to the vote come May, the County Commissioners can still vote to support a state-run toll on the new span of the bridge, though projections from the Florida Department of Transportation show that a $2 or $3 toll would have to be in place for at least 30 years to foot the $75 million bill. By contrast, County Finance Director Bill Imfeld’s data shows that a 1-percent local tax option could raise $12 million per year, which means a tax would take approximately 10 years to pay for Walton County’s contribution to the $177 million project. Data provided by the county shows that 56 percent of a burden for sales tax hike would be borne by tourists and the rest by county residents.
Compared to the last meeting, when public opinion was fairly divided among those in favor of a toll, those for a tax referendum and those against the bridge altogether, none who spoke at the most recent meeting favored a toll. Colby Anderson, who owns a small insulation company, said a toll would impede his ability to compete with rival businesses in Okaloosa and Bay counties which would not have to pay a southbound toll on the new bridge. Anderson, among others at the meeting, was not entirely convinced that new bridge was necessary or even prudent given the financial situation the county finds itself in but nevertheless contended that, should a bridge be built, the cost should be shared by every resident of the county.
“If we are going to do it, I think the county should have to pay the tax, not just a certain group of people who access this bridge every single day,” Anderson said. “I think it needs to be distributed equally throughout the county.”
DeFuniak Springs resident J.B. Hillard said FDOT had not done sufficient research upon which to base the information it provided to the BCC, which in turn handed the responsibility of approaching the public over to the Blue Ribbon Task Force. He called the whole process “ill-prepared for public consumption,” while others agreed the county should carefully examine the future consequences of either option.
However, as task force member Leigh Grantham said, it was the panel’s responsibility to “choose the lesser of the evils.” Grantham said a referendum was the only way to gauge the public’s opinion since, even with three workshops held throughout the county, the task force had only heard from a small number of those to be potentially impacted by the panel’s recommendation and the BCC’s ultimate decision.
Task force member Bonnie McQuiston made a motion for a referendum, which was quickly seconded. After the proposed language of the referendum was hammered out, the recommendation passed unanimously and swiftly.
Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson said he had supported a voter referendum before he was ever asked to join the committee and that opinion had not wavered throughout the proceedings of the past meetings. He said that it was the responsibility of the BCC to take the issue of funding the bridge before the voters since it would amount to going “beyond what the taxpayers provided.” Adkinson contended that a referendum was the most equitable way for the people of the county to have a say in the matter.
“Whether you support [a tax], a toll or no bridge at all, that decision should not be, in [my] opinion, be made by a committee and/or the Board of County Commissioners,” Adkinson said. “That decision should be put before the voters.
“If we, as a county, decide that we do not want to pay a sales tax, then let us be prepared to live with it.”
The task force was set to make its recommendation for a referendum at the BCC’s meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 24.