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Penny tax for transportation in Osceola could be on special election ballot in May

Penny tax for transportation in Osceola could be on special election ballot in May
Osceola County voters could go to the polls May 21 to decide on whether to make their sales tax the highest in Florida. (ED SACKETT / ORLANDO SENTINEL)

Osceola County officials want voters to add another penny sales tax for transportation that would make it the highest in the region and the state of Florida.

County Manager Don Fisher told GrowthSpotter he will ask commissioners to vote Monday for an ordinance calling a special election on May 21 for the referendum.

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"We have a deficit of funding for our local roads of about $1.1 billion," he said. "With our current revenue sources, we could afford to do about one road project every 10 years, and we have 24 roads that need to be widened."

If approved, Osceola would join Hillsborough as the only two counties in Florida with an 8.5-percent sales rate -- the highest rate allowed by law. Hillsborough's tax rate jumped 1.5 percent on Jan. 1 after voters there approved the extra half-cent surtax for school and full-cent for transportation improvements.

Osceola Commissioners will vote Monday on whether to call a special election for May 21 for a transportation sales tax referendum.
Osceola Commissioners will vote Monday on whether to call a special election for May 21 for a transportation sales tax referendum. (Osceola County)

Osceola's combined state and local 7.5-percent sales tax is already higher than the rates in Orange, Seminole, Lake and Polk counties, which all charge 7 percent.

Commissioners discussed the possible transportation surtax during a workshop in December. At the time, they asked staff to bring back proposals for a half-cent and a full-cent. Fisher said he's recommending the full cent -- which would generate an estimated $60 million annually -- for the next 30 years.

He said the funding would allow the county to address its backlog of road and bridge projects and to improve traffic operations through an expansion of its "Intelligent Transportation System." All of the revenue would go into a Transportation Surtax trust fund, which could also be tapped to invest in new sidewalks, bike trails and intersection improvements.

It could also be used to advance funding for FDOT projects, but not for any toll road projects.

The proposed ordinance would not allow funding to be spent for SunRail operations, but it could pay for enhancements of SunRail facilities or for other types of public transportation, including Lynx or a future Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system on U.S. 192.

Fisher said the county would post a list of eligible transportation projects on its website. The county is prohibited from advocating for the tax, but a privately funded campaign committee could raise and spend funds to promote it.

"I think three months is enough time to educate the public about the need," he said. "We're willing to go to any Rotary Club or HOA meeting to get the information out."

Hillsborough County placed its transportation tax question on the general election ballot last November. The measure passed after two previous failed attempts.

Osceola's successful half-cent surtax for school construction passed with nearly 58 percent of the vote in 2016. It was on the November ballot.

Kari Ewalt, Community Relations Coordinator for the Supervisor of Elections Office, said her office hasn't budgeted for an off-year special election. She estimates the cost at around $200,000, depending on the number of early election days. Osceola County would have to pick up the tab for conducting the election.

Have a tip about Central Florida development? Contact me at lkinsler@GrowthSpotter.com or (407) 420-6261, or tweet me at @LKinslerOGrowth. Follow GrowthSpotter on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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