Emotions are running high in the days before a divisive May 21 special election where Osceola County residents will vote on a proposed 1 percent sales tax increase for transportation. The Osceola News-Gazette hosted an independent town hall on May 9 to gather input from a panel of community leaders and give residents an opportunity to voice concerns about the upcoming vote.
The proposed sales tax increase, if passed, is said to generate over $60 million a year to be used on an umbrella of transportation-related projects including road work, intersection improvements, sidewalks, bike lanes, walking trails, Lynx and – beginning in 2021 – SunRail.
People filled the county commission chambers Thursday night along with the town hall’s six panelists – two in favor of the vote, three against it and the county’s transportation director to provide facts and clarification.
Panelists included president of the Osceola County Libertarian Party Marcos Marrero, City Commissioner and local business owner Felix Ortiz, County Commission Chair Cheryl Grieb, former public official Atlee Mercer, Osceola County Transportation Director Tawny Olore and local practicing physician Dr. Paul Sovran.
News-Gazette Publisher Tom Overton hosted the event with help from News-Gazette Editor Brian McBride and Osceola Star Publisher Guillermo “Bill” Hansen
Panelists were asked to give their opinions on questions relating to the upcoming sales tax submitted by the News-Gazette editorial team and residents who attended the event.
Impact to local businesses was a major talking point throughout the night, with anti-taxers arguing residents will likely leave the county to shop in order to avoid a 1 percent increase on items. People like Sovran agreed that the tax is also regressive, meaning it affects lower income people more than higher income people.
“People change behavior, change location because of changes in taxes,” Sovran said. “We should expect that to happen here if this goes through because it’s happened everywhere else.”
Grieb countered that the sales tax will be capped on purchases over $5,000, so the maximum increase someone could expect if the vote goes through is an additional $50 in sales tax.
“On a $25 purchase, to put it in perspective, we’re talking about a quarter,” she said. “I’m not driving to Orlando to have my drinks and dinner for a quarter.”
Using tourist development tax (TDT) funds was cited as a way to help pay for transportation projects without raising sales tax. But because the tax was developed by the tourism industry, it can only be used for capital improvement projects and marketing efforts related to tourism.
“It’s always easy to say we’ll get someone else to pay,” said Mercer, who helped launch the pro-tax political action committee Fix the Traffic! “But in reality, there is nobody else to pay.”
Still, Sovran said it’s worth a shot.
“In no other industry can the industry tell the government where that tax money goes for its own benefit,” Sovran said about TDT monies. “It should be the single top legislative priority for every elected local official to demand that law be changed in Tallahassee.”
Rounds of applause often followed anti-tax statements made by panelists and residents who addressed the room during the second-half of the town hall.
Stopping growth and future development was another hot talking point that dominated the conversation.
“I’m sure that most people can say growth is a major problem here,” said Mark Peters, a Poinciana resident for 18 years who suggested the county triple mobility fees to discourage new construction. “If we increase Pleasant Hill Road by four lanes, and we pack more people down that road, we’re going to end up with the same situation.”
By a show of hands, nearly all audience members indicated they have already decided how they will vote. The upcoming 1 percent sales tax increase is set to take place May 21 in Osceola County.