Offer something for all with tax voteBy Steve Estes
November’s general election ballot will be a long and involved one for local voters. There will be a host of local races, state races and of course the pick of a next President.
But few items on the ballot will carry the weight of more than 50,000 wallets on the outcome.
Monroe County will be asking voters to extend the infrastructure sales tax for another 15 years.
This tax has already been in existence for more than two decades and has funneled about $75 million into building wastewater systems. It has also been used in some unwise fashions by previous county commissions.
Previous county commissions sold the tax to the voters years ago as a way to pay for wastewater, something we have to do by state mandate. We wish that all of the funds had gone to wastewater. If they had, we would be in a position now to finish the Cudjoe Regional system with a lot less pain to the residents of that service area.
But hindsight is 20/20 and we can’t lament what was, we must consider what must be.
Because of the bad decisions made in the past, much of the good done with the sales tax money will be forgotten, leaving the county commission with a perception problem.
The sales tax is necessary to finish the Cudjoe Regional wastewater system. There is no other alternative for the eventual users of the system, unless one counts pulling about $18,000 from one’s own wallet an alternative.
But areas of the Keys that have already benefitted from the sales tax money have said they’re not sure they’ll support the continuation of the tax.
And that is short-sighted thinking.
Nearly every wastewater authority in the county, and there are far too many, has been forced to borrow some portion of the money needed to complete those systems. And since nothing in life is free, the users of those systems are paying a capital component in their monthly bills to pay off the debt.
We always hope that the state and federal governments will live up to their promises and hand down some more money for wastewater projects, but that money can’t be used to pay off existing debt. That money can only be used to put pipes in the ground.
But the sales tax money can be used to pay off debt.
Our current elected leadership has promised that every dollar of sales tax money will go toward wastewater until such time as it is believed the systems are paid for.
But that promise doesn’t go quite far enough.
Once the Cudjoe Regional is completed, the tax money should be routed back to any system that still needs to pay off debt and pay against the remaining principle until the capital component of the monthly user fee is eradicated.
Once the capital component is eradicated for everyone, then the rates can be standardized across the spectrum because operations and maintenance costs for a sewer system is virtually the same regardless of the system’s location.
We believe that taxpayers will take a different view of the extension if they realize that there really is something in it for them that will lighten the load on their personal wallets.
Just a claim that the governments need money for other things after wastewater isn’t going to spur someone who’s paying now for the sins of the past every time they open a water bill. But watching that monthly charge decrease as folks rent hotels, buy groceries, purchase gasoline and put clothes on their backs would be a welcome sight.
This might be thinking foreign to a local government, to let the taxpayer off the hook once you have them on it, but a release program for personal wallets would, we think, be well received.
The county expects to get about $10 million per year in usable money from the sales tax extension. Applying even half of that to principle reduction would pay off the debt service of local wastewater systems in short order.
And half might be a compromise that greedy governments can live with since the alternative might be no new money for roads and bridges, facility maintenance and capital replacement programs.
We’d like to hear our elected leaders at least discuss programs that would benefit every user of every system in Monroe County from the extension of the sales tax.
The folks in the Cudjoe Regional need the help of every voter come November to defray staggering potential costs for mandated wastewater.
It is up to our elected kle4adership to strike a bargain with those same voters that they can live with and support.