Will Santa Rosa voters approve a half-cent LOST sales tax renewal this November?

Annie Blanks Pensacola News JournalPublished 3:58 PM EDT Aug 31, 2020When Santa Rosa County voters head to the

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When Santa Rosa County voters head to the polls in November, an important local item will be on their ballots: whether or not to renew the county's half-cent sales tax, which was first passed in 2016 and is slated to sunset in 2021 unless it's renewed. 

The half-cent sales tax has generated approximately $9 million a year since it was implemented Jan. 1, 2017. The money has funded things like new playgrounds, park improvements, road improvements and capital equipment for the sheriff's office and fire department. 

But after a tumultuous past two election cycles, including a special election in October 2019 where voters defeated a proposal to increase the half-cent sales tax to a full cent by a two-thirds majority vote, some citizens still aren't convinced that the Local Option Sales Tax (LOST) is the best way to fund much-needed improvements throughout the county. 

"If you think about it, nothing has changed for the better since we first voted down LOST," said Dara Hartigan, a citizen advocate and president of the pro-impact fee group Save Our Soundside. "We have no impact fees, no concurrency, no revised Land Development Code to restrain lear cutting, protect natural resources or limit destruction of wetlands or heritage trees. Nothing is better, but much is worse with unchecked rampant development." 

Renewal: Santa Rosa County's half-cent sales tax renewal will be on the ballot in November

More impact fees: Santa Rosa County to discuss additional impact fee to pay for roads, parks, police

Hartigan and others have long said they want the county to implement impact fees, a one-time fee on new homes and commercial projects, before they'll approve any sort of LOST increase or continuation. To be clear, the item on the ballot in November is for a continuation of the existing half-cent sales tax, not a new tax. 

Since voters struck down the one-cent sales tax last October, the county commission has taken steps to implement impact fees: they passed the school board's educational impact fee in January which will pay for new schools (although it's currently in escrow as a lawsuit brought by the Home Builders Association of West Florida makes its way through the legal system), and it's working with attorneys and consultants to devise an infrastructure impact fee ordinance that would pay for new roads, parks and law enforcement. 

New impact fees: County looks to draft second impact fee ordinance

What's in store: 'Most consequential election in Santa Rosa County in 20 years': What's next for the county?

Sam Parker, the District 1 commissioner who has championed both the tax increase and impact fees, is now setting his sights on passing the LOST continuation this November. Parker said the LOST is needed if citizens want to get the improvements they've been asking for, like improvements to Woodbine Road. 

"In the last four years that we've had the Local Option Sales Tax, we've brought in over $30 million and we've spent that on projects such as road improvements, park improvements and millions of dollars in capital equipment for our sheriff and fire departments," Parker said. "When people say, 'well, can you do it without LOST?' Well, that would be $30 million that we wouldn't have elsewhere."

The county's current sales tax rate is at 7%. Six percent goes to the state of Florida, half a cent goes to the county and the other half cent goes to the school board. The sales tax is applied to everything from clothes at retail stores to candy bars at gas stations and souvenirs at the beach. 

Parker said the county's budget goes mostly for operating expenses and keeping all the parts of the county moving, and the LOST is like "extra" money coming in that helps the county do other important projects. 

"To me, this really is an issue of, it's not that we don't have the money to operate. It's a question of what kind of community do we want?" Parker said. "If we want to have the kind of community that fixes infrastructure needs that our citizens have addressed, frankly, we have to have the capital." 

The general election will be held Nov. 3, 2020. More information about LOST can be found here. 

Annie Blanks can be reached at ablanks@pnj.com or 850-435-8632. 

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