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Administrator says half-cent sales tax could fund Hernando infrastructure work

BROOKSVILLE — There's a lot to get done in Hernando County. Just ask County Administrator Len Sossamon.

One day last week, Sossamon sat in his conference room with several short stacks of papers. On some of the pages were single-spaced lists of capital projects and infrastructure needs that, if met, could help set Hernando County's sluggish economy on fire.

The draft documents listed millions of dollars in improvements, from the upgraded utilities needed to make land near the interstate more attractive to industries to much-needed improvements to the harrowing intersection of Mariner and Cortez boulevards.

The problem is that while the needs are many, funding is limited.

But Sossamon says there might be an answer — a way to accomplish the major capital improvements he hears residents clamoring for:

Ask voters to approve a half-cent sales tax.

An additional half-cent sales tax would generate $7.5 million a year for county government. If voters would agree to such a tax for 20 years, Sossamon noted, the county could float a tax-anticipation note for $150 million, enough to knock quite a few major projects off the list.

Will he recommend such a move to the County Commission?

"I'm thinking very seriously about it,'' he told the Times.

He also believes that the best way to approach voters would be to package the county tax proposal with the half-cent sales tax the School Board is going to ask voters to approve this fall. The School Board already has a half-cent sales tax that voters approved years ago, but it will expire this year if voters do not continue it.

"The schools are getting ready to renew theirs,'' Sossamon said. "If we could put together a concerted effort to get the parties to play together well, and promoted it jointly for specific projects, . . . then each of us will be getting $7.5 million per year.''

"Then,'' he said, "we'd be putting Hernando countians to work.''

Sossamon plans to take the idea to the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce next month. He already has his 10-member self-appointed Business Development Council working on the idea.

Representing the building, real estate, manufacturing, marketing, banking, educational and health care industries, the committee was assembled by Sossamon to assist him in his second job, as the county's economic development director.

From Sossamon's viewpoint, building the necessary road, water and sewer infrastructure not only positions Hernando to attract high-level companies to the county, but also provides a foundation for future residential and commercial development.

While the county cannot advocate for passage of a sales tax referendum, Sossamon said it is the county's job to compile a list of needed projects and then educate the community about how the tax, if approved, would be spent. County staffers are currently preparing a presentation that would highlight priority projects.

"A half-cent sales tax could do all kinds of stuff,'' Sossamon said. "We could do County Line Road, Mariner and 50, Barclay and Powell.''

That doesn't count a laundry list of utilities and airport projects that Sossamon also has on his desk.

The idea of combining the county's half-cent sales tax with the School District's proposal comes at a particularly sensitive time.

After making two strong pitches to the County Commission over the last two months to reinstate school impact fees so the School District can catch up on a long list of school maintenance projects, the majority of the commission said no.

School Board members Gus Guadagnino and Cynthia Moore said they were not in favor of combining the two issues on the ballot this fall. They said partnering with the county could jeopardize keeping the school sales tax revenue in place. The last time the school tax and a separate half-cent tax for the county appeared on the ballot, the school tax won but the county's lost.

The School Board members also said they have been very clear on where their money will go, and, if the county is part of the same tax question, the county's needs could confuse the issue.

Guadagnino also noted that the School Board isn't pushing a new tax, but the continuation of a an existing one. The county's tax would be new.

Sossamon said he met with superintendent of schools Lori Romano days after the commission's no vote on impact fees, and "nerves were raw'' over the vote. But he said he had a good discussion with her, and another meeting is planned in the coming days.

"She didn't make any promises,'' he added. But he did ask her to be on his Business Development Council, and she agreed.

Do three members of Sossamon's own County Commission agree that the sales tax is something worthy of pursuit?

He is hopeful.

"Let's go for five,'' he said. "I've gotta be optimistic.''

Staff writer Danny Valentine contributed to this report. Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

Administrator says half-cent sales tax could fund Hernando infrastructure work 03/28/14 [Last modified: Friday, March 28, 2014 3:28pm]

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