Transportation Advisory Committee holds sixth meeting, encourages public input [PREMIUM]

THE SEPT. 6 Transportation Advisory Committee meeting featured discussion on structuring of financing for transportation projects and an updated five-year implementation plan for transportation projects.

By DOTTY NIST

The Transportation Advisory Committee’s Sept. 6 meeting featured information on financing such as bonds that could be used to leverage tax revenues to pay for transportation projects if Walton County voters decide on Nov. 8 to approve a one-cent discretionary sales tax for infrastructure projects. Discussion also continued on a draft list of transportation projects that could be funded through the tax and associated financing.

This was the sixth meeting of the committee, which is composed of two county commissioners and representatives from each of the county’s three cities. The members had been tasked with identifying transportation projects in connection with the potential tax for transportation infrastructure funding.

The Sept. 6 meeting was held at the South Walton Annex and was almost three hours in length. In contrast with the committee’s five previous meetings, it was held in the evening. The members had decided at their Aug. 1 meeting to hold future meetings in the evening to assist with public participation.

Tony Vallee, DeFuniak Springs city councilman and committee chairman, said he was excited to see more members of the public in attendance at the meeting. “It’s been very frustrating not to have more public participation,” he said, expressing appreciation to the citizens who were present.

Vallee introduced a presentation by Clay Adkinson, acting attorney for Walton County, on structuring of financing to leverage transportation funding. Vallee indicated that the committee was looking at the possibility of bond issuance as a means of allowing for more projects to be taken on “on an earlier basis.” It is anticipated that the committee will approve a recommendation to the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) at its October meeting regarding this financing. Vallee said the recommendation would be based on what would be most beneficial to the county at the present time.

Speaking via ZOOM, Adkinson indicated that the financing would not be general obligation or general ad valorem bonds payable out of ad valorem taxes but could be another type of bonds. “This would be debt service backed fully by the revenue generated from the one-cent sales tax, should it pass,” he said.

Adkinson said it is expected that $38 million per year would be raised from the sales tax countywide, including the amounts collected by the cities in connection with the one-cent sales tax. He explained that the method most frequently used to leverage funds in such instances is through bank qualified financing.

Adkinson clarified that the term of any type of financing, including bond financing, would not necessarily be the length of the tax, which would be for a time “not to exceed” 30 years. The term of the bond, he said, would be based on the amount that would be needed to complete specifically-identified projects.

Adkinson said that once the committee, and ultimately the county commissioners, had determined what immediate needs projects they saw as feasible to undertake in a window of five to ten years and what matching moneys would be required for projects and had come up with a cost number, the county could “go out and shop the open bond market,” looking at all bond options.

Among other comments, Vallee pointed out that with the sales tax 60 percent of the revenue would be collected through tourism dollars. He said it was also important to understand that the sales tax would not be collected on grocery or medicine purchases—and for larger purchases would only be collected on the first $5,000 of the purchase amount. These exemptions are contained in the state statute for discretionary sales taxes upon which the local sales tax would be based.

Addressing the committee, Chance Powell of Walton County Public Works Engineering presented an updated five-year implementation plan for transportation projects with a total cost of $473 million for the five-year period.

He explained that costs shown for projects reflected cost to the county in instances where projects would be anticipated to be funded 50 percent by the county and 50 percent through the Okaloosa-Walton Transportation Planning Organization (TPO). Powell indicated that the idea was for the county portion to be provided to get the projects moved up on the TPO list for funding.

In response to a question, it was clarified that the list of projects was not ranked for priority other than with the projects being listed for specific years within the five-year period.

Discussed were $44 million of projects that had been identified as shovel-ready, with Powell clarifying that not all of those projects would be done in the first year. He explained that some are very large projects that would take several years to complete, even if they were started right away.

In public comment, South Walton County resident Alan Osborne recommended that the committee advise the county that no development project in south Walton County requiring proportionate fair share for transportation mitigation should be approved due to the right-of-way being overloaded with insufficient room to expand roads and drainage. He also credited the county not following the Walton County Comprehensive Plan (CP) for the road overloading that residents are experiencing.

South Walton County resident Barbara Morano thanked the committee for holding the evening meeting and suggested that ZOOM participation be made available for citizens to participate remotely. She brought up the 30-year time period for the one-cent infrastructure sales tax, which has been a sticking point for many in the community.

Adkinson clarified that 30 years would be the maximum time period for the tax—and reminded attendees that an amendment adopted about a month ago specifically states that the BCC would review and obtain an independent audit of the tax and funds received on an annual basis. He added that it would be possible for the BCC to sunset the tax in any given year per the terms of the associated ordinance.

He confirmed that a supermajority BCC vote would be required to do the latter.

Morano and other citizens in attendance voiced concern both about a project on the list of projects for 2023, the South Walton North-South Connector that would traverse Point Washington State Forest and about a road project envisioned for 2025, the extension of Walton Way across the former Golf Garden property to the Driftwood Road intersection at U.S. 98 in Miramar Beach. Residents have criticized the latter road proposal due to expectations that it would increase traffic along small neighborhood streets and cause traffic issues in these affected neighborhoods.

Speaking about the forest connector road, south Walton County resident Lynnie Scott observed, among other remarks, that the state agencies had stated their opposition to this road. She told the committee members that the odds were “completely stacked” against any kind of success with the road. She suggested that the committee go ahead and “kill” this road proposal.

The next Transportation Advisory Committee meeting has been set for 6 p.m. on Oct. 3 at the Walton County Courthouse.

Agendas and materials for the Transportation Advisory Committee may be viewed by clicking on “Transportation Advisory Committee” under “County Spotlights” on the Walton County website, www.co.walton.fl.us or at https://www.co.walton.fl.us/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=2345

The email address publicworksengineering@co.walton.fl.us is also available for public input to the committee via email.