BROOKSVILLE — A majority of Hernando County commissioners voiced support Tuesday for a joint sales tax referendum with the School Board.
And, during their first public discussion of the proposal, all of the commissioners voted to move forward with the process for putting the referendum, which would provide money for road improvements and economic development, on the November ballot.
County Administrator Len Sossamon told the commission that the sales tax idea grew out of the laundry list of capital improvement projects the county keeps and the reality that making those projects happen would require a new funding source.
Last week, Sossamon spoke at a School Board workshop, adding his voice to those from the local business community to pitch the idea of a "Penny for Progress," the working name for the sales tax initiative.
The School Board had been poised to move forward on its own with a new half-cent sales tax to replace a soon-to-expire half-cent tax. But the business community and the county pushed to add another half cent for the county to pay for specific county projects, then selling the proposal for a full penny to the public with a marketing campaign that would emphasize community improvements.
The county and the school district could each receive about $7.5 million annually from the tax, with Brooksville getting a small portion of the county's half.
Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes noted that he doesn't generally approve any tax increases, but said he had to face the current economic reality of falling property values and tax revenue.
Last year, the commission increased the property tax rate, but Dukes said that tax affects only "people who pay taxes already." About 8,000 county property owners do not pay the tax, and 4,000 others pay a reduced amount because of sinkhole activity on their property.
With the sales tax, on the other hand, at least 20 percent of the revenue comes from visitors to the county, Dukes said.
"It's the most fair and equitable way," he said.
Commissioner Diane Rowden said that the county's effort several years ago to gain approval for a sales tax increase failed because the county didn't focus on specific projects.
Rowden said she would favor a penny tax shared with the schools and Brooksville.
"I've always been supportive of working together, in unison," she said. "It certainly benefits the entire county."
She noted that people would not pay sales tax on groceries or medicine, and there is a cap on higher-priced purchases such as vehicles.
Saying the joint effort would be "a great way to raise revenue," Commissioner Nick Nicholson said he also is in favor of the penny sales tax increase.
He stressed that getting it passed by voters would require the county to have a good marketing plan that focuses on specific projects for which the revenue would be used.
"(The schools) have needs, and we have needs, but if we're not specific … it won't pass," he said.
School officials have asked for more information before deciding whether to combine forces with the county on the tax push. Under the calendar approved Tuesday, the commission would adopt a resolution on the referendum, then consider formal approval after a public hearing July 8.