Group raising money to back sales tax increase in Osceola

Fix the Traffic! signs are popping up around Osceola County as the May 21 sales tax election approaches. This sign appears near the corner of U.S. Highway 192 and Old Hickory Tree Road in St. Cloud.

Red and white signs with the phase “Fix the Traffic!” are popping up all over Osceola County.

The signs – and soon the mailers, TV commercials and other advertising – are part of a campaign that’s not only anti-traffic – it’s in favor of a 1 percent sales tax increase meant to raise money for Osceola County’s transportation issues.

“Fix the Traffic!” is a Political Action Committee, or PAC, formed by Osceola County businessmen Hector Lizasuain - a former county employee who now works for Magic Development - and former county commissioner and property appraiser, Atlee Mercer.

Lizasuain and Mercer are counting on support from Osceola’s business community to help pass the referendum that would raise the county’s sales tax level to 8.5 percent, putting it on par with Hillsborough County for the highest in the state.

The purpose of the PAC

Fix the Traffic! is putting a message out that if the sales tax fails, the county’s only other option to raise transportation improvement funds would be a hike in ad valorem rates – better known as property taxes. That would disproportionately impact businesses, Mercer said, and it wouldn’t capture revenue from visiting tourists.

“That’s not a threat. It’s a fact,” Mercer said. “Osceola County has over a billion dollars in backlogged road widening projects. That’s a lot of money that has to come from somewhere.”

Mercer, a self-described staunch Republican, sat on the County Commission for years and watched minimal road improvements take place.

He believes the commission he sat on did what it could with the resources it had. But he noted that the county needs more money now or gridlock traffic and congestion will only get worse.  

“We can’t have developers pay for the sins of the past and we can keep ignoring the problem,” he said. “It will cripple our economy.”

The sales tax would generate over $60 million a year in revenue to widen roads, expand intersections, improve traffic control, build sidewalks and trails and support public transportation, including SunRail and Lynx.

What the PAC money is going toward

Fix the Traffic! was formed in mid-March and last reported $33,050 in contributions to the Osceola County Supervisor of Elections on March 31. According to Kari Ewalt, community relations manager at Osceola Supervisor of Elections Office, PACs only report contributions monthly, and then the 18th and 4th days prior to an election.  

On April 15, Mercer said contributions are likely closer to $100,000 for Fix the Traffic! His goal is to raise at least $500,000 and use the money to fund a full political advertising campaign to include mailers, yard signs, TV commercials, radio ads and more.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there about the sales tax. There’s also a lot of people who just don’t know it’s going on,” Mercer said. “It takes money to run a campaign.”

Contributors and donations so far

Seventeen businesses and individuals contributed to the PAC between March 19-31 with amounts ranging from $100 to $5,000 each. Twelve of the donors were engineers or engineering firms and two were real estate businesses. Only four contributors had addresses listed within Osceola County.

Mercer said PACs often receive donations from groups with something to gain from election outcomes.  

“People will always do what they perceive to be in their best interest,” he said. “If this tax passes, the county is committed to building over a billion dollars of transportation projects, so if I’m involved in engineering, I’ll probably get some of that money.  So maybe I should make sure that passes.”

PACs in Florida and beyond

PACs are organizations that raise money privately to influence elections and they have become a popular fundraising mechanism in America because contribution limits are higher. An individual can only contribute $1,000 a year to a candidate or campaign, but groups can donate up to $5,000 to a PAC.

Before Hillsborough County voters approved a sales tax increase in November, a similar PAC formed there called “All For Transportation.” It raised just under $4 million in about five months, according to the county’s Elections Office website.  

The opposing PAC, meanwhile, raised about $137,000.

Volusia County residents will also vote on a sales tax hike the same day as Osceola County. The PAC there, “Volusia Citizens for Better Roads and Water,” had already raised $190,948 as of March 4, according to the Daytona Beach News-Journal. The growing pot of private money there has been largely funded by members and companies associated with the county’s business alliance. 

An opposing PAC in Osceola?

But not all residents are in favor of the upcoming Osceola County sales tax vote.

A faction of fierce opposition has discussed forming a PAC of its own. Zane Matter, a Republican conservative candidate running for State House District 42, said he was looking into filing papers with the SOE this week or next week to create a PAC. Other residents against the proposal also say they’re looking into it.

“Residents can’t afford this tax,” Matter said. “It’s basically a slap in the face of hardworking Osceola County residents.”

Voters can cast ballots on the sales tax increase May 21. New voter registration for this special election ends April 22 and early voting runs from May 13 to 19. For more information about voting, visit the Osceola County Supervisor of Elections' website

Click here to see a list of contributors for "Fix the Traffic!"