Martin County commissioners delay decision on sales tax referendum

MARTIN COUNTY — A proposed sales tax referendum received little opposition during its latest discussion, and the issue is expected to be back on the table next month.

The County Commission decided Tuesday afternoon to give staff a month to narrow down the possible uses for the money raised with the proposed tax.

Some commissioners and County Administrator Taryn Kryzda also said if the sales tax goes on the ballot in November, they would prefer it to be 1 percent instead of half.

The higher amount would be necessary to help the county catch up on $222 million in infrastructure maintenance as well as a $10 million annual shortfall.

County officials estimate a 10-year levy would raise a total of $120 million under the half-percent option and $240 million with a 1 percent tax.

“Half cent won’t even keep us even (with the maintenance backlog),” Commissioner Ed Fielding said. “We need to look at 1 cent.”

Fielding and Commission Chair Sarah Heard said the uses for the tax revenues proposed by staff were too broad. Fielding suggested staff eliminate a few of those items, such as using sales tax money for parks expansion and debt payments.

Heard said that, if approved, she would like to see the money raised used for maintenance and not new projects.

“To gain my support, these things are going to have to be removed so taxpayers know what they are paying for,” Heard said.

If commissioners move forward with the sales tax option, the county will have a separate public hearing and commission approval for a referendum to be included on the November ballot. If voters approve it, the sales tax would go into effect Jan. 1.

Ten people spoke during the Tuesday meeting, most of them in favor of the tax. Stuart Mayor Troy McDonald, Jupiter Island Mayor Harry Charlston and Sewall’s Point Commissioner Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch asked Martin County to approve the tax.

McDonald said since the economic downturn, Stuart has not been able to afford any capital improvements. He supported a 1-cent sales tax implemented for 10 years. On Monday, the Stuart City Commission gave its support to Martin County’s sales tax proposal in a 5-0 vote.

“If we all participate in educating the public, the city believes this measure will pass,” McDonald said.

Resident Joseph Malloy asked the County Commission to study budget cuts before supporting a new tax.

“(The tax) is equitable, it’s fair, but it’s another tax on top of a tax,” Malloy said.

More than half of Florida’s 67 counties levy a local surtax, which is added to the state’s 6 percent sales tax. Indian River County has a 1 percent sales tax, and St. Lucie County levies a half-percent tax.

Martin County could also explore other options, including increased property taxes and a utility franchise fee. But county officials and people who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting said a sales tax is better because it would be shared by residents and nonresidents who shop in the county and use its infrastructure.

If they approve the sales tax option referendum, commissioners have to weigh in on a half-percent or 1 percent levy, either of which would include a cap limiting the tax to the first $5,000 of a purchase. Food, health care and residential lodging expenses would be exempt.

If approved, the sales tax money will be used for infrastructure projects and to keep up with the increasing wear and tear on 500 miles of roadway, 52 bridges and 29 miles of aging corrugated metal drainage pipe the county maintains.

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