The Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday held the first of two public hearings on a pair of tax hike proposals.
While a motion was put forward to stop the progress of a proposal to add 5 cents to the local gas tax, the motion died for a lack of a second after county attorney Jeremy Novak recommended commissioners conduct a second hearing Sept. 9 as scheduled before a final vote.
A proposal to add one penny to the bed tax collected for tourist development, which garnered far less comment, will also be the subject of a second public hearing Sept. 9.
A supermajority, four of the five commissioners, must support the proposals to be approved for implementation Jan. 1.
And for a time during Tuesday’s hearing there was a question about whether the gas tax proposal was had that support.
Commissioner Joanna Bryan, after public comment, quickly moved to halt the proposal, arguing there was money in the budget that could be carved out to mitigate the $116,000 a year the 5-cent gas tax would provide for operations at Public Works.
“I don’t think we are operating on austerity,” Bryan said. “I think there is a lot of room for cuts in this budget.”
She got a second from Commissioner Carmen McLemore who has opposed a proposed hike in the gas tax the past two years.
However, McLemore cautioned that killing the proposal would mean commissioners would have to find the money elsewhere in the budget as the tentative millage rate, which can not be raised, has already been approved.
“That is my only issue at this point; it would have been easier to not go this route from the outset,” McLemore said. “I have opposed this from day one.”
Public comment, there were three speakers, was divided.
Tom Semmes of Wewahitchka said the gas tax would create additional hardship for those on fixed or low incomes and said the result could be a flight of customers to Bay County to purchase fuel for their vehicles.
He added that commissioners had not always managed funds appropriately – citing recent examples such as a $20,000 increase in the administrator’s salary while most employees were not getting raises, bloated and over-budget travel expenses and lack of spending on the leaking Wewahitchka Courthouse.
“This is a bad ordinance,” Semmes said.
With commissioners also looking at an increase in the millage rate, Barbara Radcliff of Port St. Joe said an increase in the gas tax was in effect “double-dipping” and echoed Semmes’ comments about low incomes residents.
“It is a kind of regressive tax,” Radcliff said.
But Pat Hardman of Port St. Joe said it was appropriate to shift some of the burden for funding county operations off property taxpayers she said already foot too much of the bill.
“There has got to be some relief for the property taxpayer,” Hardman said. “We are taking it on the chin for the tourists and those who don’t pay property taxes.”
Commissioner Warren Yeager, who has championed the gas tax hike the past two years, said commissioners had to find alternative sources of revenue.
He took exception to Semmes’ comments on managing money, arguing the budget has been steadily carved the past six years.
His fundamental opposition to the property tax system fed his belief that offsetting a chunk of the budget through the gas tax was the “right thing to do.”
“It’s a fair tax and it’s fair way to do it,” Yeager said.
And, he added, Bay County had the same level of gas taxes and the prices in Bay County were lower due to proximity to the gas not taxes.
The discussion took a turn to countywide voting as Commissioner Tan Smiley said commissioners had added to the budget and in turn the millage rate to pay an attorney for continued work on countywide voting and had provided $80,000 a year for a director of economic development without results.
And now, Bryan was proposing to push another $120,000 into property taxes.
“I am just doing simple math,” Smiley said.
Smiley argued “the people in my district don’t want countywide voting” and McLemore agreed, saying a voter referendum on the issue is now a decade old and might not pass today.
Bryan said three commissioners had run for office in support of countywide voting and that the legal work was actually to bring the county into compliance on districting.
Commissioner Ward McDaniel roped the discussion back to the gas tax and made his case that the additional dollars would benefit not only the county but the two municipalities that would share in the proceeds from the tax.
Rigid restrictions were placed on the spending of revenue from the gas tax, he added.
He said the cost to a driver, $50 for every 1,000 gallons of gas, was not too heavy a burden.
“I don’t like any new tax but a sales tax is a fair tax,” McDaniel said.
Yeager reported that with rules from the U.S. Treasury nearly finalized the county would soon begin seeing some money from fines deriving from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Gulf County is in line to receive some $2.2 million in money from the settlement with Transocean. The BP trial picks up again in January and is expected to result in the county, potentially, seeing 10 times that amount.
Yeager and Novak said once Treasury rules are finalized, as soon as October following a public comment period, the county would be position to apply for funds to help crafting a plan for spending future revenue.
The county was out ahead of the curse with a RESTORE Committee charged with assessing and prioritizing local projects funded through the RESTORE Act.
“I’m proud we got this far and it’s a great opportunity for Gulf County,” Yeager said.