Commissioners had mixed feelings about reintroducing the one-half-cent sales tax referendum on the 2024 ballot during a discussion on the matter at the April 25, 2023 Board of County Commissioners meeting. Chairman John Allocco is opposed to the referendum, based on the results of the last public vote on the measure. Other commissioners are hesitant to float an additional tax burden to a base that is already strained economically and may face increased millage rates. Additionally, the renewal of the existing half-cent sales tax for the school district will also be on the ballot.
This referendum would seek to fund economic development, expanding the county’s economy by developing businesses, and attracting taxpayers to Hernando County.
All commissioners are in favor of the consumption tax, which adds revenue when anyone purchases eligible goods in the county, not only residents. However, since the BOCC’s referendum failed in 2022, and has never passed previously, the board is not confident that this vote will have a different result.
During the Interlocal Meeting with the School Board on March 31, 2023, the district suggested working with the county going forward on tax increases for the respective agencies. No decisions were made during that meeting, but Commissioners Steve Champion and Jerry Campbell are leaning toward the BOCC making an independent decision.
“I’m in favor of moving forward with the half-cent sales tax. We talked about doing a partnership with the school board … I would still explore that and look at the pros and cons of it, but I think we’re better off doing it on our own,” Campbell said.
He then said that most counties that successfully levied a half-cent sales tax used the revenues for infrastructure, of which 15 percent could be allocated to economic development. He calculated that method as adding approximately $2 million per year, 30 percent of which would be generated by visitors to the county.
Champion is concerned about the language content of the referendum being attractive to voters. “If you don’t have law enforcement or something on there, it’s not going to pass. This county has never passed a sales tax referendum. You put parks on there, and roads, it’s never going to pass… what are you going to do differently from last time?”
Commissioner Beth Narverud offered a different take on the failure of past referenda, “I think one of the problems … limiting yourself too tightly to specific projects, rather than putting it toward [a category].” Public perception of issues is another factor steering their votes. “I know we had a lot of people come out and vote against us because of the Preserve. We had a lot of the schools vote against us because we didn’t let their (referendum) move forward.” This time, she doesn’t see how anyone can not be aware of the infrastructure needs, especially roadways.
Allocco explained his opposition to the referendum, “As much as I am in favor of the sales tax, and that style of revenue, I don’t think I’m in favor of doing anything this year. (A new law) says you have one shot at renewing a referendum… we had this referendum a year ago, it was overwhelmingly voted down. I would much rather wait for the community to come to us and say, ‘We want this,’ or get some businesses in the county … so there is skin in the game, rather than it coming from us.”
Commissioner Brian Hawkins added that the 2022 ballot is still fresh in the voters’ minds. The potential of the School Board’s one-half-cent referendum combined with a School Board millage increase applies additional pressure to the County’s request. “However, if it does fail for the schools, that is going to be very, very bad.”
During the Interlocal Meeting, the school district demonstrated that with the trend in population growth in Hernando County, at least one new school will be needed in two to three years, and it will require a funding mechanism. Hawkins is undecided on a partnership with the School District.
Champion said he thinks the School District’s referenda will “go down in flames,” particularly if both tax increases appear on the ballot together. “They’d better not put the mill on there. If they do, they’re going to lose both. If they go after the half-cent, that might pass.”
The bottom line comes down to the citizens’ bottom line. “It has to do with the money in their pocket. The average age here is 63… and they’re living on fixed incomes, inflation’s 8.6 percent … and you want to add another tax.”
Allocco maintained his opposition, saying, “It’s too soon, we’re not through this economic challenge … the economy is not in a position for people to look (favorably at a new tax). Frankly, I think the county is worse off if the school district (sales tax) fails.”