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BOCC sends school district half cent sales tax to 2024 ballot

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County Attorney Jon Jouben returned to the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) meeting on May 10, 2022, with his findings following a board directive to ascertain if the Hernando County School District (HCSD) half-cent referendum can be moved to the 2024 ballot by the BOCC. Jouben’s opinion is that the BOCC can indeed put the referendum on hold until then.

The board voted 4-1 to approve the referendum for 2024. Commissioner John Allocco motioned for the vote, which was seconded by Commissioner Wayne Dukes. Allocco emphasized that he does support the referendum, but he will support it in 2024.

Superintendent John Stratton, School Board Chairman Gus Guadagnino, and School Board members Kay Hatch and Jimmy Lodato explained at the beginning of the meeting, during the Elected Officials segment, why putting the referendum on the 2022 ballot would save the school board money and allow for more projects to be planned.

Guadagnino told the board that rising costs and interest rates should justify the early vote. “By prolonging this tax that we want to keep going — it’s not a new tax, of course… it’s going to cost us hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars.”

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Allocco asked how delaying the referendum would cost the HCSD more money, to which Guadagnino explained, “Right now we can only judge what we can buy until (the tax) expires. If it gets passed (in 2022) we can judge that for the next 4-5 years … then we can do many more projects.”

Hatch asked for the BOCC’s support as well, adding, “If we know where the citizens of the county are in terms of supporting the school board and supporting projects that have been deferred maintenance since long before you all knew me, it would make life easier for our staff to begin to plan those projects not only until 2024 but until the new time (period) of the referendum.”

Stratton added that a House Bill that died in the Senate last year which would have asked voters to convert the Superintendent position to an elected position would not have gone into effect until 2026. It was slated for the 2022 ballot. “So that concept is not unheard of.”

At least one new school will need to be built. Stratton went on to say that the state does not provide a revenue stream to build schools. “If we decided today that we needed to build a school, realistically you’re looking at not operating for 3 years. For us, to have that 2-year buffer to be able to plan, I’m rather certain that we’ll have a school somewhere.”

Lodato reported to the BOCC that the new addition to Winding Waters K-8 was estimated to cost $2.5-million, and ultimately cost $5-million. “We have five more schools we’re going to have to do that with … We have to be ready for this expansion (of housing and population).”

Commissioner Beth Narverud voted nay on the motion to approve the referendum for 2024, citing looming financial handicaps should the referendum not appear on the 2022 ballot. She reported that she had been in favor of moving the referendum to 2024, however she changed her mind when considering potential problems with bonding and the pending construction of thousands of new homes. New schools will be needed, but unless the school board can prove they have access to the money to build new schools, they won’t be able to obtain bonds.

“I would be willing to go ahead and approve moving forward on the 2022 ballot. I agree, I did not want it this early, I was not for that at all, but I do understand with the recent growth in this county, the need for it. I don’t like it … but I do understand what happens when there’s a gap, and I do understand the need to move forward and bond that money to be able to provide for the students.”

Jouben’s memorandum to the board on the matter cites a 1998 opinion by Attorney General Bob Butterworth. It reads in part, “Unlike other statutes that clearly authorize a school district to call a referendum or to direct the county commission to call such an election, section 212.055(7), Florida Statutes, merely provides that the governing body of the county is responsible for placing the resolution on the ballot. It is a responsibility that cannot be avoided. However, the statute is silent regarding which election must include the referendum question, but rather imposes on the board of county commissioners, as the governing body of the county, the duty, and responsibility of placing the issue on the ballot.”

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