Placement worrisome for tax question
Page 8 of long ballot may frustrate voters

By Steve Estes

This year’s general election day, Tuesday, Nov. 6 will feature one of the longest ballots in recent history.

And that, according to county commissioners, might well bode ill for the county’s referendum on extending the one-cent infrastructure sales tax.

The ballot is eight pages long, four pages printed on both sides. The sales tax referendum question is located on the last page as the next-to-last item.

County Commissioner Heather Carruthers said she is concerned that voters will simply give up before they reach the end of the ballot and the question that is vitally important to Monroe County.

The one-cent sales tax has been in place for 22 years and has financed large chunks of the wastewater systems for Baypoint, Big Coppitt, and Key Largo, as well as capital projects such as the Murray Nelson Government Center in Key Largo, the Key Largo Community Park, the Big Pine Community Park, part of the freight for the new airport terminal in Key West, the purchase of the disaster recovery center on Big Pine Key that currently houses Habitat for Humanity and other, smaller projects.

About $20 million in unspent money from that fund will go toward jump starting the Cudjoe Regional Wastewater system in the Lower Keys in the very near future.

But that money stream is set to come to an end in 2018, and county officials say they need the revenue stream to continue to finish state-mandated sewer systems, particularly the Cudjoe Regional.

Users of the system are being assessed $4,500 per equivalent dwelling unit. An EDU is roughly equal to the average water flow for a single family home. Most commercial facilities are being assessed multiple EDUs, however, so that users will pay about one-third of the system up front. The unspent sales tax money and a $30 million grant from the state will take care of another third, but county officials are relying on the continuation of the sales tax to pay for the remaining third.

According to County Administrator Roman Gastesi, visitors to the Keys pay about half of the annual sales tax revenue, which, “makes this a good deal for the county residents.”

Officials estimate that the tax will generate about $13 million yearly for the county coffers. The referendum is worded so that all the money collected will be used to pay for wastewater projects until those projects are fully funded. After that, the money can be used for other capital projects.

The priority for any further money, says Gastesi, is county-maintained roads and bridges, an area where declining budgets have hit hard in recent years. He estimates the county is $30 million behind in funding road and bridge projects.

The county cannot use public funds to lobby for the passage of the sales tax, but commissioners can voice their personal opinions at any forum or gathering, and public money can be used to educate voters about the item’s placement on the ballot.

It was suggested that staff print placards to place outside polling places come November 6 to let voters know the location of the referendum on the ballot.

And between now and then, Gastesi urged commissioners to talk up the extension at every opportunity.

Outgoing District One Commissioner Kim Wigington said that what happens if the tax doesn’t pass has to be part of that discussion.

“If the sales tax fails, it means that everyone’s property taxes will go up to pay for the completion of the system” said Wigington.

The state has promised another $150 million for the wastewater development here, but it took five years to get the first $50 million installment, and the next three may never materialize, leaving the sales tax the best way to finish paying for what District Two Commissioner George Neugent maintains has been a $1 billion unfunded mandate to sewer the Keys.

“We went into this with the state and federal governments as partners. They have not held up their end of the partnership, and we are left with the mandate and no outside money to pay for it,” said Neugent.

The sales tax has been extended before by the voters, primarily on the backs of the voters in the Lower Keys. Upper Keys voters have turned down the tax extension previously even though they have received large chunks of funding from the tax revenues for wastewater and capital projects.

“This is not a new tax,” said Gastesi. “We have all been paying this tax for 22 years.”

If the referendum passes, the tax will be extended for another 15 years.

Commissioner Sylvia Murphy said the ballot placement could be problematic as well because it comes at the end of a string of 12 proposed Constitutional Amendments placed on the ballot by the state Legislature, most of which are expected to be soundly defeated.

“People may get in the habit of voting no on the amendments and just let that carry over to the tax question,” said Murphy. “Maybe we should encourage people to start at the back of the ballot and work forward.”

Should the tax extension not pass in November, the county’s fall back is to raise the money through property tax levies, something none of the seated commissioners have supported, but that might not have to happen right away, said Neugent.

“By placing the referendum on the ballot four years early, we can take another bite at the apple if we have to in coming election cycles,” said Neugent.

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