By DOTTY NIST
“I don’t really want a toll and I don’t want to be taxed, either,” one local resident told the Highway 331 Task Force at its Jan. 11 public workshop at the South Walton Courthouse Annex, which was attended by over 50 people.
This was a sentiment to which almost everyone could relate, including the members of this task force appointed to evaluate options for the $75 million local match that is being required from Walton County in order for the four-laning of the U.S. 331 bay bridge to become a reality. Those options include a 1-percent sales tax increase and the placement of a 30-year toll on the new bridge span to be constructed.
Like the majority of those in attendance, the resident, who crosses the bridge to work on the beach, was convinced of the need for expanding the bridge and was opposed to a toll.
“I am totally against tolls,” he said, adding that he did not favor any fee that would carry forward to his children. “I will pay the tax if I have to,” he concluded.
He was one of two dozen citizens to address the members of the county-commission-appointed task force at the two-hour public workshop in Santa Rosa Beach. The majority of the speakers stated either that they strongly supported or would favor the 1-percent sales tax option.
Just one speaker spoke favorably about the toll option, giving the reason that it would be unlikely for the sales tax increase to ever be discontinued once approved. He reasoned that the county could impose the toll and stop it when the $75 million in matching funds had been collected. A business owner, he further suggested that businesses could reimburse their employees for the tolls they had paid getting to work.
However, when advised that it would be the state and not the county imposing the toll, as the county has no tolling authority, the speaker changed his mind, saying, “Well, I guess we need a tax, then,”
Regarding a toll, it was also discussed that, with this option, there would be no toll booths and that all tolling would be electronic, with the use of a photographic technology. The technology would provide for people from out of the area to receive bills in the mail for their tolls as a result of their license tags having being photographed as they crossed the bridge. The toll fee has been estimated at $2 to $3, to be collected on the new southbound span only, not on the existing bridge section, which would remain in place to carry northbound traffic.
Of, those expressing support for a sales tax increase, some said they would favor a tax increase of less than a whole percent. Walton County Finance Director William Imfeld has estimated that it would be possible to pay off the $75 million in 10 years or less with a one-percent tax increase—and in approximately twice that time with a half-percent increase.
Some attendees expressed concern that a 1-percent sales tax increase would put Walton County’s sales tax at 8 percent, the highest in the state. However, several Florida counties currently have a tax rate as high as 7.50 percent.
An analysis by the Haas Center for Business Research and Economic Development revealed that approximately 43 percent of the tax increase would be paid by residents and approximately 57 percent by tourists—and that growth in the tourist industry would result in tourists paying an even greater percent of the sales tax.
A citizen referendum would be required to increase the sales tax, and a decision by the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) would be required in order for the state to put a toll in place. With either method of funding for the $75 million match being approved, the state has agreed to bid out the $179 million project this year on a design-build basis, with design to start this year and take approximately 12 months. Construction is envisioned to take 18 months to complete….
Read the full story in the Jan. 19, 2012 edition of the Herald Breeze.