CRESTVIEW — The Okaloosa County Commission agreed Tuesday to try to send mail-in ballots on a half-cent sales-tax referendum to voters before Christmas.
If approved by voters, the tax would take effect Jan. 1 or shortly thereafter. It would generate about $17 million annually for capital improvement projects such as road and drainage work in unincorporated area and municipalities.
The commission discussed the proposed tax, but not a proposed sunset date, at a workshop at Crestview City Hall.
County Administrator John Hofstad noted that each municipal member — other than Destin — in the Okaloosa County League of Cities favors putting the tax question before voters. Destin City Council members have expressed displeasure about the possible population-based distribution method of the potential tax revenue.
Of the estimated $17 million in annual sales tax money, about $11.2 million would go to the county.
“We still have 200 miles of unpaved roads on the north end of the county,” Hofstad told commissioners while noting how the county could benefit from the tax. Also, “We have a very crowded jail that’s over-capacity.”
The county currently has $200,000 set aside in its proposed fiscal 2018 budget for the initial phase of its jail expansion project.
Hofstad said he met last week with Superintendent of Schools Mary Beth Jackson and School Board Chairman Lamar White, who told him they think they would have more success with the school district’s proposed half-cent sales-tax referendum on its own ballot rather than putting it on a ballot with the county’s tax question.
Hofstad said the district is looking at having a mail-in ballot special election next May to decide its tax proposal. If approved by voters, the district's possible five- or 10-year tax might generate about $15 million during its first year. Annual revenue would be spent on school infrastructure projects, including a possible high school in Destin.
After hearing of the district’s proposed election date, Commissioner Nathan Boyles said he would like the county’s tax question to go before voters ahead of the school district’s referendum.
The cost of a countywide, mail-in ballot for the county’s sales-tax referendum might be $110,000 to $125,000, county Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux told commissioners.
In comparison, the cost of tacking the referendum onto next March’s municipal elections’ ballot would be about $130,000 to $150,000, while the cost of putting it on the November 2018 General Election ballot might be about $15,000 to $25,000, Lux said. The latter amounts represent the estimated cost of legal advertising for the referendum.
After further discussion, commissioners agreed to move forward with a mail-in ballot special election before the end of this year. That’s because a tax approved by voters at any time in 2018 wouldn’t take effect until early 2019, as required by state law.
After Commission Chairwoman Carolyn Ketchel asked fellow board members how soon they would like the mail-in ballots sent out, Boyles joked, “Is next week too soon?”
Commission Vice-Chairman Graham Fountain said local municipal officials must tell their taxpayers how the potential tax revenue would benefit their cities.
Commissioner Kelly Windes said he’s comfortable with quickly moving forward with the referendum because officials from eight of the nine municipalities approve doing so.
Lux said the potential mail-in ballot special election will need the secretary of state’s approval. The county’s plan for the election will be sent to the secretary once the ballot language is finalized, and it’s possible that the ballots might be ready to be sent to voters before Christmas, he said.
County Attorney Greg Stewart said he and other staff members have already drafted a proposed ordinance on the ballot language, which might be ready to share with municipalities by the end of this week.
“We must work together on this,” Stewart said.
Crestview City Clerk Elizabeth Roy, whose city might receive more than $1.6 million from the proposed sales tax, said Crestview officials can create a list of its capital improvement projects in a short time.
County League of Cities President and Laurel Hill City Councilman Scott Moneypenny had similar thoughts.
“The biggest thing is how we’re going to present (the benefits of the tax) to the public,” he said.
And Fort Walton Beach City Manager Michael Beedie said, “If we’re asked to help pay for the cost of the special election, we’d ask our council, because the benefits far outweigh the risk.”