(Editor's note: This is the first in a weekly series about Charlotte County's sales tax referendum.)

Some people are worrying about who wins the presidential race, but many in Charlotte County are just as worried about whether the next sales tax vote passes.

At stake locally are about $20 million in capital projects over the next six years. Projects include school security, road widening, sidewalks, police and fire stations, libraries, parks and pools.

While the decision is made officially on Election Day, Nov. 3, many voters are deciding sooner when they mail in their ballot or vote early.

Florida introduced the local tax option decades ago. Charlotte County enacted the first in 1994, which succeeded in funding just two projects: the Justice Center and a new jail, all costing $52 million.

The surcharge adds a key revenue source to a state that is one of nine in the country with no income tax. Florida also has laws that restrict the growth of property tax. That leaves sales tax, impact fees, gas tax and lots of other fees to foot the bill for increasingly sophisticated amenities.

Pressure to invest in capital projects in Florida is ballooning as the population growth continues unabated.

Sixty-seven local governments in Florida have adopted a sales tax surcharge, mostly 1% or 1.5%. Hillsborough County has 2.5%. DeSoto County has 1.5%. Charlotte County seeks to continue its 1% tax.

One of the obligations of the sales tax surcharge is to help pay for infrastructure improvements to keep the burgeoning population from ruining its own water supply and waterfront.

The federal gas tax has been a dwindling source of funding for highway projects. That leaves the local sales tax surcharge as an important source for local road projects that also accommodate population growth.

Quality of life is also on the list of projects that are intended to keep Florida a popular destination for retirement and vacation. Those projects include libraries, parks, boat ramps and recreation centers.

Public safety takes a priority spot on the list as well. That includes the demand for new police and fire stations.

There are a few projects voters won't see on the county's list. They won't see any in the county's largest master-planned community, Babcock Ranch. When that project was designed, the developer agreed to pay for most of its own amenities and infrastructure. 

Englewood has only a few projects on the list this time around. County staff explained this summer that the 2014 tax paid for so many projects in West County that they focused this time on mid-county. As a city, Punta Gorda gets 10% to use as it wishes.

Charlotte County has voted six times before on the local sales tax surcharge. Only once did the referendum fail. That was in 1996, when the county asked for the tax to pay for an estimated $53 million to expand sewers. Much of the payments would have gone to individual homeowners to subsidize their hookups or pay for septic tank removal. The vote failed by a 3% margin.

In four of the five other votes, the vote was solidly in favor of the sales tax. In 2008, the beginning of a brutal recession, the vote passed by less than 2%.

Early sales tax initiatives were limited to two years. By 1998, however, voters approved four years and 21 projects at $57 million. That included many parks and cultural projects.

In 2002, the county tried the six-year span for the first time with projects costing $118 million. The biggest was the expansion of Edgewater Drive and Flamingo Boulevard. Other large road projects included Piper Road phase 1 and Winchester Boulevard. South County and Oyster Creek parks were built or expanded with that money. In all 30 projects were completed.

In 2008, the economy failed, but voters still approved six years with six projects covering $101 million. All six projects were transportation-related, including Burnt Store Road phase 3, more work on Edgewater Drive and, the biggest, expanding Midway Boulevard.

By 2014, confidence was growing. Voters approved projects that paid for 26 projects at $124 million. With the economy booming, sales taxes came in above expectations, allowing the county to dip well into its tier 2 projects and to expand the scope of some projects such as the recently completed Centennial Pool. The list included everything from parks to libraries to roads to school security.

While local voters generally like the sales tax surcharge, recent votes in other parts of the state have not all been successful. In Santa Rosa County, which includes Pensacola, voters rejected a sales tax surcharge in 2019. The main objection, according to news reports, was that voters wanted the county to raise construction impact fees instead. This location has experienced substantial growth in their school population, which is not true in Charlotte County.

Sometimes, elected officials are the main opponents of local tax surcharges. State legislators tried unsuccessfully in 2018 to impose limitations on local tax votes, in an attempt to keep Florida taxes low. And in Hillsborough County, commissioners are pursuing their objections in court to a successful 2018 citizen initiative for a public transportation sales tax surcharge.

Survey research showed in Charlotte County that support for the sales tax starts to drop when the time gets too long, so commissioners opted against anything longer than six years. Commissioner Joe Tiseo said the county needs to be able to re-evaluate the surcharge more frequently than 10 years.

County staff and commissioners began preparing for the 2020 sales tax initiative in 2019, identifying long lists of projects and estimating revenues. A citizen task force evaluated each project over a period of months. The group voted and debated what it considered the most important.

Commissioners in early 2020 modified that list, moving some projects up and others down the list.

So what if the vote fails? Does the county just write off all those projects?

Not necessarily. Impact fees charged to developers of single-family homes or business and industry construction is another revenue source. During the recession, Charlotte County simply shut off its impact fees in an effort to unburden the floundering real estate market.

After the recession, the county brought back impact fees but in a limited way — just fees to pay for transportation projects such as roads. Currently, the fees have expanded.

Charlotte County does not charge impact fees for education projects. Asked why not, staff told commissioners they did not know. The fact is Charlotte County's student population has been declining and there is little demand for new schools.

The top priority of the new sales tax list, however, is $5 million for a school security system, promoted in the wake of the deadly attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018.

In the recent workshop on impact fees, indicators are that commissioners will be asked to consider substantially higher impact fees if the sales tax referendum fails to pass. One commissioner, Christopher Constance, has been pressing for the county to maximize impact fees regardless of the sales tax outcome.

One scenario of maximized fees shows single-family home fees increasing by 125%. Commercial construction fees, in contrast, might drop.

Other commissioners, including Stephen R. Deutsch and Bill Truex, oppose dramatic increases in impact fees.


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