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The Story of the Last Attempt at Local Sales Tax Increase

There was no county commission meeting this week. The next regular meeting is this coming Tuesday will be preceded by a workshop to discuss an animal shelter. If you click the “News” tab on the Chronicle’s website, nine out of the first 11 stories that come up are having to do with crime or courts.

This isn’t a sign that there’s a crime wave sweeping Citrus right now. Rather this has been a slow news week and those types of stories sourced through public information requests drive the most traffic while also being the easiest to write.

Today we will be focusing on taxes. Tax increases are necessary at times. To be a conservative is to be fiscally responsible. This means collecting enough revenue to pay for the services needed to operate an effective government.

These increases, however, should be treated as an absolute last resort. Oftentimes the rhetoric surrounding the need for tax increases is much worse than the situation that involves the raises.

Take the last time a local sales tax increase was on the ballot for example.

A half-cent raise in the sales tax to support our schools appeared on the August 2016 ballot but failed to pass 54.74%-45.26%, a margin of roughly 3,250 votes out of nearly 34,000 ballots cast. While this is a relatively narrow margin compared to our usual county blowouts, this is not considered to be a particularly close decision by political standards.

Many local Republicans supported this measure from School Board Member Doug Dodd, a nonpartisan seat but Capt. Dodd often attends Republican Executive Meetings, to State Sen. Wilton Simpson whose Jobs for Florida political committee provided the $20,000 funds to run a campaign in support of the initiative.

The Citrus County School Board (CCSB) representing the school district had been fighting a three year battle with Duke Energy over tax revenue. The state intervened in late 2013 appropriating $11 million to cover some of the CCSB’s $16 million shortfall while lawsuits were filed against Duke. The capital improvement budget, the reason given for the half-cent sales tax raise, was hit twice as hard as the operating expenses budget, according to a Dec. 3, 2013 Chronicle story.

If a sale tax raise were to ever pass locally, this would likely be when it would be. You have a clear culprit in Duke causing easily understood shortfalls plus the support of many high-profile Republicans. The tax had a sunset window and a narrowly defined term of use, two important features of any tax increase. Yet still, it failed by a wide margin.

The result in the years after the failure to raise taxes for schools was that Superintendent of Schools Sandra “Sam” Himmel was voted by her peers as the 2020 Superintendent of the Year in Florida. The Concurrent doesn’t focus much on the workings of the school system, but we recognize the many credible people who give credence to Superintendent Himmel’s unrivaled administrative skills so this award is considered well-deserved.

It would not be based on student performance though. From 2010-2014, Citrus public schools received four total “C” grades yet from 2015-2019, this number skyrocketed to 18 total “C” grades. The rating system is flawed, but this type of increase is startling.

Student performance is only one aspect of what goes into the job of administering our school system. Thus, the award was likely the result of navigating CCSB through the budget crisis without a tax increase in such an effective manner that it warranted statewide recognition that is much-deserved.

The point is not to take away from Ms. Himmel’s award that she earned, but rather to demonstrate that it is possible to get through budget hardships without raising revenues on the public. We praise her for the leadership in crisis and celebrate the outcome as an example of why we don’t need a county sales tax raise now.

This was a half-cent during a time of real budget shortfalls. What is being discussed is a full cent during a time of $28 million budget surplus.

The Board of County Commission needs to be disciplined in how they allocate the CARES Act funds to be sure the absurdity of raising the local sales tax right now is not seriously discussed or publicly supported, especially when federal taxes will have to be raised to cover the uninhibited spending since the pandemic began.


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