Residents to decide fate of half-cent sales tax on May 8th ( TAX PASSES)
The Florida Department of Transportation will hold a public information meeting regarding the design of State Road 83 (U.S. 331) from two to four lanes starting at Edgewood Circle and ending at S.R. 8 (I-10) in Walton County. The meeting will be held May 10 from 5 to 6 p.m. at the DeFuniak Springs Community Center located at 361 North 10th Street. This meeting will allow citizens an opportunity to preview the proposed design, ask questions, and/or submit comments concerning the upcoming project.
The intent of the project is to increase the vehicular capacity of the corridor. The proposed typical section will consist of two 12-foot travel lanes in each direction, separated by a 40-foot grass median, 12-foot outside shoulders (five-foot paved) and 8-foot inside shoulders (unpaved) are proposed. This project is not currently funded for construction.
Hundreds have already voted in the early voting period, which ends Saturday at 4:30 p.m., at both the South Walton Courthouse Annex and in DeFuniak at the courthouse. Voting will be open again May 8, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Voters may vote in their election day precincts, at the regular ballot casting locations.
If the tax does not pass, it is up to the Board of County Commissioners to decide how to proceed with the project. The results of the vote will decide if the county implements a half-cent increase in sales tax or if county commissioners discuss putting a toll on the bridge.
Rather than frame the discussion in terms of a tax or a toll, the Walton County Taxpayers Association has stepped forward with a third consideration — that it is fruitless to discuss how to pay for something we don’t need.
“The bridge is not essential. Not in the near term, and not in the intermediate term,” said Don Riley, president of the WCTA, which has embraced the motto of “No tax, no toll.”
FDOT has dedicated $375 million for the entire 331 four-lane project, and of that, less than one-third will be used for the bridge. But in order for Walton County to receive that $102 million, the residents must come up with $75 million.
Though the watchdog group seems to be balking at the cost of the match, Walton County administrator Greg Kisela thinks this is a great opportunity.
“This commitment by DOT, in my mind, was a deal maker for us,” said Kisela of the $375 million, which he thinks makes $75 million look like a relatively “small investment.”
Though the WCTA now stands firm in its course of action, at one point, they were almost convinced to support the project.
In March of this year, Riley, along with Bonnie McQuiston and J.B. Hillard of the WCTA, and four county commissioners, met with Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad in Tallahassee to discuss the project.
“ ‘The time is now,’ ” Riley recalled Prasad’s message. “He made a very persuasive argument.”
Prasad also reportedly floated the idea of mitigating the cost to Walton County residents north of the bay by means of discounts and flat monthly fees.
The group came away from the presentation impressed with the project, but then later, when they asked for specific numbers about the toll discounts, they were told the specific numbers would not be available until after the referendum, according to Riley.
Not knowing what they were signing up for, the WCTA polled its members. Nearly 800 members of the group responded to the emailed survey. Seventy-five percent voted against the tax and 67 percent voted against the toll, according to a news release from the association. The north part of the county was more strongly opposed than the south, the news release stated.
With the survey in hand, Riley sees this project as indicative of a larger problem with fund-prioritization in governments from as small as Walton County to as large as the federal government.
“It’s time to stop and closely examine what we have been doing — what our core responsibilities are,” said Riley. “This county could spend its money more wisely than it has, than it is doing.”
But Kisela, as the county spokesman, sees this as a worthwhile project for socioeconomic development of a main vein for travelers — especially during hurricane evacuations and tourism season.
“It’s the only north-south corridor we have,” said Kisela.
He also spoke to another criticism that the bridge funding debate was taking place years before the four-laning of Hwy. 331 was to be completed.
“The initial concern was that we had the cart before the horse, and now they’re both going to be done at the same time,” said Kisela of the 2017 completion date for both projects.
But the WCTA is not backing down from the stance that the bridge expansion remains unnecessary at this juncture.
“This bridge is a real low responsibility,” said Riley.