With 10,164 “yes” votes and only 989 “no” votes, Okaloosa County voters in 1989 approved a two-year, half-cent sales tax to fund a $10.5 million expansion of the county jail.
But two later county sales tax referendums in 2001 and 2006 failed at the polls. The latter initiative had called for a five-year, 1-cent tax to pay for transportation, stormwater and wastewater system upgrades and other infrastructure projects.
“A lack of cohesiveness among the municipalities killed that (2006) initiative,” County Administrator John Hofstad told the Daily News earlier this year. “Everyone was going off in their own direction.”
He added that one of the projects that some tax supporters had touted at the time included a community swimming pool in Destin — something many voters obviously didn’t see as a priority.
The overall project list for the 2006 referendum “was more of a wish list than a needs list,” recalled Nick Chubb, current chairman of the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce board of directors.
Soon, local government officials will find out whether voters support the county’s latest quest to charge an extra sales tax.
READ: Proposed projects >>>
Voters will be asked in the Nov. 6 general election to approve the county’s 10-year, half-cent sales tax referendum.
If approved by a simple majority of voters, the tax would take effect Jan. 1. It is estimated to generate about $19 million annually for public safety, transportation and stormwater system capital improvements.
Almost $12.7 million of the estimated total would go to the county and the remainder would be divided among its municipalities, based on population.
County officials often note that while the county’s millage rate is one of the lowest in the state, they don’t have enough money to pay for all its capital needs.
They say the potential sales tax revenue is desperately needed to address a huge backlog of infrastructure improvements and other pressing needs.
For example, “Right now, we could spend $60 million on stormwater needs,” Hofstad said.
He said the sales tax would allow the county and its municipalities to leverage local money with state, federal and Triumph Gulf Coast dollars for various projects.
Chubb recently shared one of the ways of looking at the need for an Okaloosa County sales tax.
“If you don’t put money into maintaining an old car that you rely on for transportation, it won’t serve you,” he said.
While Florida levies a 6-cents-on-the-dollar sales tax, the county does not charge its own sales tax.
As of last November, Okaloosa County was one of only six of Florida’s 67 counties that did not have a discretionary sales tax, according to the state Department of Revenue.
If approved by voters next month, Okaloosa's half-cent sales tax would increase the overall sales tax to 6.5 percent, or 65 cents per $10 purchase.
Currently, the total sales tax in Santa Rosa County is 7.5 percent. It’s 7 percent in Walton County.
Okaloosa County's staff recently compiled a list of 28 possible projects that could be funded at least in part with the county’s estimated $12.7 million in potential annual sales tax revenue.
Those projects, some of which are joint projects with various municipalities, are scattered around the county. They consist of 18 road projects, nine stormwater projects and one bridge replacement.
Potential Sheriff’s Office projects — which would be paid for from the county’s chunk of sales-tax revenue — include various school safety projects, such as creating limited-access entries and installing metal detectors and video cameras at schools.
Other possible public safety upgrades would include replacing old, obsolete communications systems, buying hazmat and bomb squad equipment and new ambulances, and building a secure evidence/logistics facility.
The County Commission, along with the county’s Infrastructure Surtax Advisory Committee, plans to discuss the county’s pressing capital needs at a special meeting Wednesday.
The governing boards of each of the county’s nine municipalities support the sales tax referendum.
Crestview, which is the county’s most populated municipality, would receive about $1.8 million of the estimated $6 million in sales tax money that would be distributed among the nine municipalities.
Fort Walton Beach would receive the second highest total, at $1.6 million. Niceville and Destin each would get about $1 million per year, and each of the remaining municipalities would receive less, and in some cases, far less.
The smallest amount, about $31,000, would go to Cinco Bayou, which has a little more than 400 residents.
In support of the sales-tax initiative, the Fort Walton Beach chamber earlier this year formed the not-for-profit corporation called Okaloosa Makes Cents Inc.
Chamber President/CEO Ted Corcoran said the chamber’s board wants to help the county take care of some of its infrastructure needs.
Okaloosa Makes Cents “is the first PAC (political action committee) the chamber has ever done in more than 70 years of being a business organization,” Corcoran said.
The PAC recently unveiled the ItJustMakesCents.org website, which includes a “frequently asked questions” segment about the possible sales-tax.
For example, in response to the question, "Who will pay the sales tax?" the PAC members answer that the tax “would apply to all transactions subject to the state tax imposed on sales, use, services, rentals, admissions and other authorized transactions. Anyone who buys goods in Okaloosa County would pay the (half-cent) sales tax.”
Several municipalities have compiled at least preliminary lists of possible projects that would be paid for with sales tax revenue.
The Fort Walton Beach City Council plans to consider its preliminary list Tuesday.
According to City Manager Michael Beedie, possible projects include improvements to the Fort Walton Landing, infrastructure upgrades at the Commerce & Technology Park, development of an RV park by the Fort Walton Beach Golf Club, a mobile command post, shooting range and SWAT vehicle for the Police Department, intersection improvements along Hollywood Boulevard and the resurfacing of Hollywood Boulevard.
J.B. Whitten, president of the Crestview City Council, said his board approved its list months ago and has shared it with the county. The council plans to review the list again Monday.
Crestview officials would use much of its sales tax revenue for the planned bypass that would ease heavy traffic on State Road 85. The bypass is expected to cost $200 million to complete.
Whitten agreed with Corcoran’s assessment that if voters approve the sales tax, Crestview and the county would have the money to leverage with state and Triumph funds and get the bypass built in five years. Otherwise, it would take local officials up to 25 years to save up the money needed to complete it, according to Corcoran.
Other possible sales tax projects in Crestview include adding a roundabout at Redstone Avenue and Brookmeade Drive and building a firing range for the city police.
“A lot rides on this” referendum, Whitten said.
As of Wednesday, only project lists for the county, Shalimar and Laurel Hill had been provided to the Okaloosa Makes Cents PAC.
Possible sales tax projects in Shalimar include an expansion of the town’s police office and the resurfacing of Gardener Drive. Potential projects in Laurel Hill include various waterline upgrades and improvements to Steel Mill Creek Road and Eighth Street.
At a Destin City Council meeting in June, Bob Perry, board chairman of the Destin Chamber of Commerce, suggested that Destin’s possible sales tax projects could include drainage improvements on Commons Drive and a traffic signal at Henderson Beach Drive and Commons Drive.
The traffic signal is listed as part of a joint county-Destin project on the county’s initial list.
Filling a void
Corcoran said chamber officials have been talking with officials from the municipalities for months about the potential sales tax, and he hopes all of the towns and cities in the county will share their lists of proposed projects with voters in the next couple of weeks.
He said the county, which was formed in 1915, has never had a “rainy day fund” via a local sales tax to take care of all of its needed stormwater and road improvements.
“We can no longer kick the can down the road to wait for a revenue stream to fix our (various needs),” Corcoran said. “If (the sales-tax referendum) does not pass, we are in for a catastrophe in Okaloosa County."
According to the ItMakesCents.org website, 56 percent of the revenue from Okaloosa County’s potential annual sales tax revenue would be generated by tourists.
The site also states that property taxes would have to be increased by 25 to 30 percent to generate the same funds as the proposed sales tax.