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A workshop on renewing the half-cent sales tax will be held July 31, after talks with the cities.
The Flagler County Board of County Commissioners couldn’t agree Monday, July 16, whether to include renewal of the half-cent sales tax on the November elections ballot, voting instead to postpone its final decision until they can hold one last workshop.
Generally, County Commissioner George Hanns said, Flagler residents have been supportive of taxes up for referendum, referencing past approvals of the half-penny sales tax and funds for environmentally sensitive lands. But that was then.
“The climate in the country right now is such that, any time the word ‘tax’ comes up, don’t even go any further,” he said. “I’m not so certain that this will pass. And in the event that it doesn’t pass, we’re really in a quandary.”
On that point, the board was in agreement, citing the expansion of the jail as the half-penny tax’s primary county function.
“People are going to cheer our law enforcement (for its recent prescription drug bust),” Commission Chairwoman Barbara Revels said, citing Operation Pain Management. “But they don’t realize what had to happen the next day.”
The next day, she said, Flagler judges and officials had to figure out which criminals to let go, in order to make room for the newly charged dealers.
“There were no mattresses,” Revels said. “You’re putting all these drug dealers in, but you had to let people out. … We do not have a choice. We have to fund this jail.”
A supporter of putting renewal of the tax to vote, Revels believes the advantage the half-penny has over other possible revenue sources is that it is existing.
“This is a continuation of a tax people are already paying,” she said. “I know it’s a tax, and a tax is a tax ... but it is not a new one.”
But Commissioner Milissa Holland worried that moving forward without the written approval of the municipalities, and without outlining exactly where and how sales tax revenues will be spent, will leave the referendum dead on arrival.
“For me, it has to do with the feeling of not working with each other, but working against,” she said. “It takes a tremendous amount of time and outreach to get to the public and make sure questions are answered.”
She also would like to organize an education campaign to inform residents why the tax is necessary. But with less than a month remaining before the board must make its decision on including the item on a ballot, Revels stated that time is running out.
“I think it’s wrong to postpone a decision on this into the future,” Commissioner Alan Peterson said, unless the board can see a final analysis of all of the county’s alternative funding sources within two weeks.
But according to County Administrator Craig Coffey, “there are no magic beans or funding sources.”
Aside from the half-penny sales tax, the small county surtax (which most other counties in Florida currently have in place) is an option, as is increasing ad valorem taxes.
A new utility tax could not be used, he said, because funds from that could only be used in unincorporated Flagler.
Still, a workshop to outline all funding sources and make a final decision on the sales tax will be held 5 p.m. Tuesday, July 31. Beforehand, Coffey will reach out to the cities one last time to gauge support and offer best compromises.
If the half-cent tax is denied by voters, the commission may also pass the tax anyway by supermajority afterward, Coffey added. But he advised that the board would be “very hard-pressed” to get approvals of four out of five commissioners for the tax immediately after it was rejected by the people.
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