SEBRING — Highlands County residents are voting on two sales tax referendum proposals in the upcoming elections, and that may have caused some confusion among voters.
The county’s 1-cent sales tax referendum will be on the Aug. 26 primary election ballot. If approved, it would extend the current tax for another 15 years starting on Jan. 1, 2019.
The school board’s 1/2-cent sale tax referendum will be on the Nov. 4 general election ballot. If approved, it would implement a 1/2-cent sales tax for 15 years.
Despite the time lag between the two ballot proposals, comments on Highlands Today’s Facebook show there is some confusion between these two referendums.
When asked for reaction about the county sales tax proposal, Carol Ryan commented: “Thought the penny sales tax was going toward education for the school system.”
Connie Arndt wrote, “I’m all for the penny for schools. You pay it when you go out of this county so why not.”
Robert Layne responded to those who were confused about county’s penny sales tax extension.
“The penny sales tax is not for the schools,” he noted.
Highlands County Community Programs/Administrative Project Manager Chris Benson said he noticed the online comments where people didn’t distinguish between the two referendum proposals.
He pointed out the county has been stressing that its 1-cent local-option sales tax has been in place since 1989. It has been renewed once and this is second time the county is seeking to extend the tax, Benson said.
“It’s one cent on the dollar and the school board’s is a 1/2-cent and they have actually never levied that before,” he said.
At the July 8 school board meeting, Superintendent Wally Cox said the district would start “gearing up in August” after the primary election when voters decide on extending the county’s 1-cent sales tax.
School Board Assistant Superintendent of Business Operations Mike Averyt confirmed Monday that the school district’s push to publicize its 1/2-cent sales tax referendum will start after the vote on county’s 1-cent referendum.
That’s probably the best thing to do, he explained, because when both the school district and the county have referendums the voters could get confused.
“We have been pushing behind the scenes and getting as much information, but we haven’t done anything publicly to push the 1/2-cent sales tax,” Averyt said. “We want to make sure the county gets theirs and then we will push to see if we can get ours.”
School Board Vice Chairman Bill Brantley also said the school district is hoping to avoid confusion by waiting to start its public information campaign until after the vote on the county referendum.
County Commissioner Ron Handley said he hasn’t seen any confusion between the two referendums.
He pointed out the differences.
“One is for our infrastructure surtax that we have got to have for all the improvements on the infrastructure, and the school [referendum] is something totally unrelated,” Handley said. “If they were coming up on the same voting date I could see the confusion.”
There will always be “naysayers” like the “tea party crew” that doesn’t want any taxes, he added.
“Generally speaking, I think everybody understands it is something we need to keep our community viable and growing in both cases - we certainly need money for education and we certainly need money for infrastructure,” Handley said. It’s the fairest tax there is and if you don’t buy anything you don’t pay the tax, he said.
The Highlands Tea Party’s member Bill Youngman countered that he could understand the need for levying the county sales tax the first time, “maybe” the second time but opposes another 15-year run.
The county is trying to “stretch” the initial 15 years of the tax to 45 years until 2034, he added.
“We have gasoline taxes, ad valorem taxes,” he said. “As long as they’ve got money in their hand, they’ve got to spend it.”
He thinks the county should first show taxpayers they have been good custodians of the money and listen to them, since the current penny sales tax is in force until 2019.
The year before it expires, the county could approach taxpayers for an extension after demonstrating the appropriate fiscal responsibility, he said.
“Then we can look at it again,” he said, and see if we really need a 1-cent tax.
Brantley said the capital needs of the school district are not being funded by the state or federal government.
“Some of these schools are 50 or 60 years old and are at a stage where you have to do something,” he said referring to maintenance and renovation needs.
“We have one of the oldest bus fleets in the state,” Brantley said “We have some very old buses out there that we have not been able to afford to replace.”
The district believes the 1/2-cent sales tax is a better option than raising property taxes, because only about half of the county’s property owners pay property taxes, he said. So if the property tax rate were increased, those 50 percent would be hit harder versus the half-cent sales tax, where about one-third of the people who would pay it are weekenders or seasonal residents.
The county is seeking the extension of its 1-cent sale tax to fund the following: road system upgrade and expansion, parks and recreation, lake and waterway improvements, governmental facilities upgrade, expansion, construction and acquisition, municipal improvement projects and governmental vehicles and equipment.