By DOTTY NIST
The recommendation of the panel tasked with looking at funding options for the four-laning of the U.S. 331 bay bridge was presented to county commissioners at their Jan. 24 regular meeting, and county citizens and organizations also weighed in on the issue.
This was at the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) meeting on that date at the South Walton Courthouse.
Dawn Moliterno, South Walton Tourist Development Council (TDC) executive director and Walton County’s point person for the effort to get all of U.S. 331 four-laned, presented the recommendation of the Highway 331 Blue Ribbon Task Force.
The five-member panel had been appointed to evaluate options for obtaining the $75 million in local matching funds that the state Department of Transportation is requiring in order for the four-laning of the U.S. 331 bay bridge to proceed. The task force consisted of Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson, retiree Wayne Bodie, south Walton County community leader Bonnie McQuiston, and Walton Area Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Kitty Whitney, and CHELCO CEO Leigh Grantham. The task force held several public meetings, including two workshops.
The two options evaluated by the task force were an increase of up to 1 percent in the sales tax and a toll that would be placed on the new southbound bridge span planned for construction by the state. Moliterno said that almost 60 percent of the sales tax in Walton County is paid by tourists.
In order for the sales tax increase to be put in place, voters would have to approve it in a special election.
Moliterno told the commissioners that special meeting minutes from 1964 indicate that the BCC was even then discussing the need to four-lane U.S. 331 all the way to the Alabama line. “We’ve been diligently working on this for decades,” she said.
Moliterno said figures provided by the Haas Center for Business Research and Economic Development indicated that a 1-percent sales tax increase would have a $216-per-person annual impact—and that a $2 toll would cost a person traveling across the bridge for work $750 per year.
Moliterno said the task force members asked if a special election ballot could ask voters, “tax-yes or no and toll-yes or no?” Research by the Office of the County Attorney revealed that this would not be allowable in a referendum, Moliterno said, which must be confined to one issue with a choice of yes or no.
“The task force did come to a determination,” Moliterno said. She explained that the panel’s recommendation was that the BCC consider scheduling the special election to allow the voters to determine whether the sales tax would be increased to provide the matching funds. The task force recommended that the proposed sales tax increase be a maximum of 1 percent, with the resulting revenue to be used solely for this purpose and to be discontinued irrevocably once the $75 million was paid off. She said the panel also encouraged the BCC to look at a sales tax increase proposal of less than a whole percent.
Walton County Finance Director William Imfeld has estimated that, with a 1-percent sales tax increase, the $75 million could be paid off in less than 10 years. At a half-percent increase, he has indicated that the amount would be paid off in approximately twice that time frame.
Moliterno said there had been much public input to the task force on the issue, both at meetings of the panel and via e-mail, and that the option of the tax increase had been preferred by most. A handful favored the toll, and still fewer did not want a bridge project at all, she commented.
Representing the Walton County Taxpayers Association, Don Riley was the first to address the BCC during the public comment period on this issue. He explained that the organization “cannot support a position on either option,” adding that in the WCTA’s view the case has not been adequately made for either a toll or a tax.
Riley told the commissioners that “our neighbors to the east” (Bay County) have had a state highway bridge constructed without being required to provide local matching funds. Riley added that the WCTA supports the BCC “working at the state level” to ensure that Walton County is adequately represented. “No tax and no toll,” he concluded.
The WCTA represents 2,789 property owners in Walton County, according to a press release by the organization.
“We need to get a lot more information out if we’re going to make a knowledgeable decision,” task force member Bonnie McQuiston told the commissioners. She was critical of the proposed toll option, calling it “the most inefficient and hard-to-manage system I have ever heard of.”
A booth-free, electronic toll system would be put in place by the state if county commissioners approve this option. McQuiston stated that 20-25 toll bills per month would be sent to many residents using the bridge. People from outside the area would be billed for tolls by mail and would be subject to arrest if they did not pay and returned to the area, she added. McQuiston warned of great negative impact of tolls on local businesses….
Read the full story in the Feb. 2, 2012 edition of the Herald Breeze.