Reporter

Looking for road remedy: 1-cent sales tax to appear on special Osceola ballot May 21

Kissimmee resident Wilbert Collins, 91, speaks out against a proposed one-cent sale tax increase at a Feb. 19 Osceola County Commission meeting. The tax is meant to generate revenue for roads and transportation.

Traffic is a hot button issue for Osceola County residents.

 So are taxes.

Yet a discussion remained civil during a Feb. 18 meeting about a proposed one-cent penny sales tax increase meant to ease road and transportation issues.

Local leaders ultimately chose to let voters decide.

A special election is now set for May 21 where residents will have a chance to vote on the proposed surtax that officials estimate will generate $60 million in revenue per year.

The population of Osceola County could double by 2040, according to estimates from the University of Florida.

With people come cars, traffic and a need for better roads.

It would cost about $1.1 billion to widen top-priority roads in Osceola County from two- to four-lanes over the next 35 years, said Tawny Olore, Osceola County director of transportation.

Resurfacing costs will also need to increase. The county put aside $9 million for resurfacing this year, but that’s still below the $12 million recommended by the state, Olore said.  

It takes about seven to 10 years for the county to save for a single major road construction project, Olore said.

For example, a main focus now is on Neptune Road, a main connector between St. Cloud and Kissimmee.  

These projects cost so much, the county tackles them one at a time, said Olore.

“We’re a one-road work program,” she said. “We squirrel money away each year to get ready for that next road.”

But the demand for new and wider roads, as well as sidewalks, bike lanes, bridges, nature trails, public transportation and other costs can’t be satisfied with the county’s current $36.08 million transportation operating budget for fiscal year 2019, Olore said.

The county already generates revenue through mobility fees, impact fees, Osceola Parkway tolls, federal and state funding and an existing local option transportation surtax.

But it’s not enough, officials said.  

Many of the residents who spoke Monday had questions for the commission.

Some claimed the proposal was a regressive tax, or a tax that effects low-wage earners more than high wage earners. St. Cloud resident Bruce Raynor said that there is a $5,000 cap on what the county can collect from someone.

“A man goes to buy a car for $4,000 and he’ll pay 100 percent of that sales tax,” Raynor said. “A rich guy buys an $80,000 Beemer. He gets off…You just shot yourself in the foot out of extra money.”

The county must obey the cap since it’s mandated by the state, said Commission Chair Cheryl Grieb.

Another concern is money collected from the tax won’t be used for roads, but rather other transportation projects, like supporting SunRail once the county stops receiving state funding for the commuter train in 2021.

Residents also questioned what happened to revenue collected from a gas tax implemented in January 2016. That measure increased the county’s gas tax by 5 cents per gallon on top of the 6 cents already imposed.

Resident Jean Olson compared it to a child asking a parent for $20, then coming by the next day to ask for $20 more.

“What did you do with the gas tax money we just gave you?” Olson asked. “I will be looking for that accounting, please.”

Other residents, like Wilbert Collins, 91, flat out opposed the measure.

“I don’t like it,” said Collins, a former Osceola County Public Works employee. “We’re taxed to death as it is.”

The proposal received support from local officials such as the mayors of Kissimmee and St. Cloud.

Bob Hansel, who served as Osceola County sheriff for 12 years, said he always opposed tax increases. But he also noted action needs to be taken.

“We’re right now paying for sins of the past,” Hansel said. “I don’t know if I’m in favor of the sales tax increase, but I know you’re doing the right thing by bringing it to our attention tonight and letting the voters choose if they want to assess a tax on themselves.”

Commissioner Peggy Choudhry said she wished the referendum would have been placed either on last November’s ballot or the 2020 General Election ballot.

She also wanted to know why the ordinance didn’t have more specific language targeting roads.

County Manager Don Fisher said doing so could hinder how much state and federal money Osceola can capture in the future.

Before he voted in favor of it, Commissioner Brandon Arrington said the decision for better roads is in the hands of voters.

“I’m tired of giving excuses of why we can’t get it done,” he said. “We’re giving the opportunity for our citizens to decide their destiny.”

The county commissioners unanimously voted to place the added penny on a special May 21 referendum.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, the public can learn more by logging on to the county’s website, www.osceola.org, and viewing the presentation given by transportation staff.

Residents can also call a special phone number, 407-742-ROAD (7623) to ask questions.

Finally, Fisher said county staff would conduct meetings at rotary clubs, homeowners associations and other organizational gatherings to educate the public about the upcoming tax proposal.