Twenty-one people will spend the next five months debating how to spend the biggest chunk of Charlotte County's revenue: the penny sales tax surcharge.

The 2020 Sales Tax Focus Group held its first meeting Wednesday. Members received a list of 31 potential construction projects that they must prioritize and help promote.

County staff emphasized the promotion part to the committee, because voters will make the final decision in the general election of Nov. 2020. That's a vote on whether to renew the sales tax surcharge option that the county has used since 1994. The county has always opted for just a 1 cent surcharge. The last vote in Charlotte County was in 2014 and residents voted to keep the tax going for six years. That time is almost up.

"At the end of this, we want to have a great slate of projects that will not only benefit the county, but also, pass at the ballot," Assistant County Administrator Emily Lewis told the committee.

"I think we will have frank and honest discussions in this room over the next five months," said Bob Lee, a Florida Gulf Coast University professor who will act as group facilitator.

The job of the committee is to prioritize a pre-selected list of projects that would draw on an estimated $20 million a year -- a conservative estimate for the sales tax intake. County commissioners have not yet decided how many years of the sales tax they will ask the voters to approve.

Much of sales tax revenue is created by construction, which is booming now, the county's Budget Director Gordon Burger told the committee.

Committee member William Shaffer asked about whether that $20 million estimate includes expenditures by the construction of the $175 million Sunseeker Resort. Burger said no.

"I can't count the chickens before they hatched," Burger said.

Since 1994, the county has spent more than $449 million on sales tax projects. The city has spent $44.7 million. Revenues dipped below $18 million during the recession years. Now, they are way up, Burger said. The last vote has generated $105 million.

In 1994, there were only two projects: the county jail and the new courthouse called the Justice Center. Over the years, projects have included a lot of work in parks, boat ramps, roads such as Burnt Store, and school gymnasiums.

This time around, commissioners and county staff are presenting the committee with the projects they must prioritize. They cannot bring in their own suggestions, Lewis told them.

Other project proposals are possible, however, through a process that the county will release shortly. The county will be allowing organizations, not individuals, during a set time period to submit project proposals that are not on the list, Lewis said.

Individual members of the public can weigh in during a public comment period at the committee meetings, members agreed Wednesday. Comments will be allowed only on agenda items, and those items will include a different set of projects each week.

Sales tax projects are critical for Charlotte County, Burger told the committee, because the county spends almost half its budget on capital projects.

"It's our largest source of revenue in our county by far," Burger said.

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