Transportation infrastructure solutions discussed at BCC meeting [PREMIUM]

THE SEARCH FOR solutions to transportation challenges in Walton County continues following the recent failure of the one-cent sales tax for transportation infrastructure.

By DOTTY NIST

In the wake of Walton County voters turning down the potential one-cent sales tax for transportation infrastructure, discussion on transportation challenges and solutions continues.

This included an offer on behalf of the Walton County Taxpayers Association (WCTA) to work with Walton County on the issue that was presented at the Nov. 10 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) meeting at the Walton County Courthouse. Jim Bagby, president of the local nonprofit taxpayer advocate organization, addressed the commissioners during a public comment period. A member of the Walton County business community, Bagby also serves as a Destin city councilman.

The WCTA had opposed the one-cent sales tax, which was defeated in a countywide referendum on Nov. 8, with approximately 31 percent of voters in favor of the tax and approximately 69 percent opposed.

“We believe that now that the voters of Walton County have rejected the plan you offered that there is a clear path forward for all of us to work together,” Bagby told the commissioners.

While voting to put the issue on the Nov. 8 General Election ballot, the BCC had not been allowed to push for the sales tax. The was in line with state law prohibiting local governments from either advocating for or opposing proposals going before voters.

Bagby outlined five “milestones” for the clear path of which he had spoken, the first of those being addressing deficiencies identified in the performance audit that had been a requirement for placing the one-cent sales tax on the ballot.

This 69-page report had dealt with Walton County program areas related to transportation projects and functions. Provided by the MGT company as consultants for the state Office of Program Policy Analysis and Governmental Accountability (OPPAGA), the August 2022 report had concluded that, with some exceptions, sufficient policies and procedures were in place in Walton County to meet statutory criteria associated with the sales tax. However, the report had indicated that Walton County “did not meet expectations” in 12 of the 25 areas researched in the report.

The report may be viewed at the link: https://tinyurl.com/tcz72au4

Bagby maintained that in order to accomplish the first milestone, a “permanent, stable, and trained workforce” would be needed. For the second milestone, he urged for the hiring of permanent replacements for all county positions currently filled with interim staff. Among these are the county administrator, county attorney, and county land use attorney positions.

“Third,” Bagby continued, “we need you to adopt some form of the mobility fees to show our citizens, our voters and our taxpayers that everyone will have skin in the game, especially those who will benefit the most. These fees don’t have to be onerous, but they have to be substantive.”

“The folks that raised over $165,000 in a matter of days to support and promote the failed initiative in a matter of days,” Bagby observed, speaking of the potential sales tax, “can surely afford to pay something in the mobility fee.”

He did not rule out a future sales tax for infrastructure, addressing this as his fourth item and recommending a duration of no more than five years for the tax, “to show the people of Walton County that we can be good stewards of their contributions to the solution.”

The term of the infrastructure sales tax on the ballot had been for a period “not to exceed 30 years.” a sticking point for many voters.

For the final item, Bagby urged for no “misleading” of the public by county staff or BCC “surrogates” in connection with the potential sales tax. He cast doubt on statements by the county that the sales tax could be terminated by a supermajority vote of the BCC at any time.

There had been discussion that debt financing/bonding could be undertaken based on revenues from the sales tax in order to fund more transportation projects in an earlier time frame.

“Everybody that’s ever bonded anything understands that once you bond that money, you cannot stop that, or eliminate the revenue source until that bond is paid off,” Bagby asserted.

“We all agree we have infrastructure needs in this county,” Bagby commented, “and we believe that everyone wants to solve those challenges. You proposed the solution and the voters delivered their opinion on that solution.”

He concluded by calling for “working together” on the issue.

BCC Chairman Mike Barker thanked Bagby for his comments and observed, “It’s always good to have support from the organization in the county.”

DeFuniak Springs City Councilman Anthony Vallee spoke next. Vallee serves as chairman for the Okaloosa-Walton Transportation Planning Organization and chairman for the Transportation Advisory Committee, which includes representation from the BCC and Walton County’s three cities.

“As much as I appreciate Destin’s input on how we should manage our process and our referendums and our roads,”Vallee said, “I would trust our citizens when they’re properly informed and accurately informed, and now that we are able to speak again, after a period of not being able to speak, I am more than happy to host…any forum, any conversation or any opportunity to provide accurate and truthful information to the citizens of Walton County and the citizens of DeFuniak Springs.”

Vallee continued, “We will proceed forward to promote projects within the city to the greatest extent that we can, given the limitations that have been imposed on us, and we will work very hard for the systems of DeFuniak Springs and Walton County, both within the city and the county,”

Vallee called the Transportation Advisory Committee “a wonderful joint effort, “ and concluded that he looked forward to progress with the committee and to having “candid conversations with the public about where we actually stand.”