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Monday, Mar 30, 2015

Hernando commissioners on board with penny sales tax hike


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— County commission Chairman Wayne Dukes said he’s never been a proponent of tax hikes but he is solidly backing the so-called Penny for Progress touted by the county administrator because it spells out where the money raised would be spent.

The majority of his colleagues agreed that partnering with the school district on a joint sales tax referendum is needed at this time to pay for road and other infrastructure capital improvements.

Too often, voters are asked to approve a sales tax increase which amounts to little more than a blank check for politicians to spend at their discretion, Commissioner Nick Nicholson said.

If Penny for Progress is not marketed properly and the public doesn’t know where the money will be used, it is doomed to fail when it goes to a referendum vote on the November general election, Nicholson said.

County Administrator Len Sossamon agreed and that is why he has staff developing a list of capital projects that will be strong candidates for the estimated $7.5 million the county would generate from a sales tax hike.

The money will be used for transportation, economic development and airport projects.

For example, county staff estimates it will cost $10 million to make the needed intersection improvements at State Road 50 and Mariner Boulevard, Sossamon said.

That’s’ going to be tough to do, he said, when the county has lost about $300,000 a year for the past 10 years due to declining property taxes and other economic factors.

“If you don’t have the capital, then unfortunately you don’t have the project,” he said.

Sossamon also plans to earmark 15 percent of the tax hike proceeds to establish an economic development trust fund to create jobs.

Cliff Manuel, a member of Hernando Progress, whose mission is to promote economic development, said his group will promote the tax and educate the public before the election so they know where the money will go and how it will be used.

The Penny for Progress is to be a collaborative between Hernando County, the school district and the city of Brooksville. The city has had a capital improvements project list pending but has been unable to proceed due to lack of funding.

Using a prescribed formula, the city would get a portion of the county’s sales tax proceeds.

The school district has a half-cent sales tax, which expires this year. School board members were preparing to ask voter to renew that tax when they were approached by county and business leaders about the partnership for a full penny sales tax.

A majority of school board members said they were open to learning more about the county’s proposal but have not taken any formal action.

Commissioners said without a sales tax increase there is the likelihood of a millage rate hike. The former is preferred, they said, because taxpayers have some control over their purchases.

Also, Dukes said a sales tax also affects people coming into Hernando County and the brunt is not borne solely by residents.

“What I like about it, everybody pays,” Dukes said.

But not everyone in the audience Tuesday was on-board with the idea.

Resident Chuck Gordon said the county wants to recoup money lost from the impact fee moratorium it put into effect in November 2011.

“You shot your own self in the foot and now you want to correct it through these other things,” Gordon said.

Board members Tuesday voted unanimously to approve a calendar outlining the deadline dates leading up to the sales tax referendum on the Nov. 4 ballot.

Also Tuesday:

County commissioners rejected a request from Tourism Development Coordinator Tammy Heon to close the eastside welcome center and instead asked staff to come back at the June 24 meeting with options for increasing customers to that office.

Heon said the walk-in traffic at 31085 Cortez Blvd., about 1⁄10 of a mile east of Interstate 75, has steadily decreased in the past couple years.

She wanted to relocate the full-time employee there and re-allocate resources and put the money saved in different tourism areas. Besides, she said the other welcome center inside Weeki Wachee State Park is doing a higher volume of business and is meeting people’s needs.

But at least five people, including two former county commissioners, spoke against shuttering the I-75 office because I-75 is the “Gateway to Hernando” and it would lose visitors who exit the interstate and seek tourism information.

Commissioners asked staff to come back with suggestions, including better signage directing people to the welcome center and the possibility of using volunteers to help greet visitors.

(352) 544-5290

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