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BOCC postpones decision on school district’s sales tax referendum

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At the regular Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) meeting on April 26, 2022, the commissioners voted to postpone the decision to place the Hernando County School District’s (HCSD) half-cent sales tax referendum on the November 8, 2022 ballot. The referendum item asks voters to approve continuing the half-cent sales tax currently in effect to finance capital improvements to county schools.

The BOCC is required by Florida Statute § 212.055(6) to place the question on the ballot.

It was Commissioner John Allocco who made the motion to postpone at the beginning of the discussion, asking the county’s legal department to investigate the legality of requiring the BOCC to vote to approve the referendum. He also questioned why the HCSD is seeking the placement on the ballot in 2022 when the current tax expires in three years.

“I struggle with the legality of having it on the referendum ahead of its time… We could have major changes,” Allocco said citing possible changes in state leadership and funding sources.

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According to Superintendent John Stratton, the decision to bring the matter to the voters in 2022 is proper planning, looking ahead 5 years or more. Stratton told the board that HCSD identified $100 million in capital improvement projects between 536 buildings. The capital improvement projects currently funded by the half-cent tax total roughly $60 million.

Capital improvements can also span several years. HVAC replacement at Hernando High School will cost $12 million, and take 2-3 years to complete. “We didn’t want to wait until the last (year), then have one year to cut off those projects, or try to absorb it in the general fund.” Stratton went on to say that the timing of the referendum will give the school district a chance to seek other funding mechanisms if voters did not approve in November.

Stratton acknowledged that the county will have its own half-cent referendum on the ballot, and supports the action. “I understand your need for that. In the midst of this growth spurt, it’s going to be hard to keep up.”

School Board Member Jimmy Lodato told The Hernando Sun on May 2, 2022, that the “long runway” that is the 2022 referendum is necessary for all the reasons Stratton mentioned. The history of the half-cent tax begins in 2015 when Lodato remembers needing to fix ceiling tiles that were falling, roofs that were leaking, and air conditioners not working. In a special election that year, voters approved the half-cent sales tax that is currently funding $15 million per year for school building additions, improvements, and repairs.

The Board of County Commissioners is scheduled to take up the issue again at their meeting on May 10, 2022. They will hear from County Attorney Jon Jouben on the matter.

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