There are long to-do lists awaiting Hernando County's commissioners and School Board members in 2014, but no issue is more imperative than determining if and when voters should consider a sales tax referendum to invest in the education and public service systems available to Hernando residents.
The County Commission and the School Board have lacked strong leadership. That has resulted in occasional and sometimes meandering discussions. In the school district, there has been little progress in determining how to pay for classroom technology and other capital needs in the school district. In the county, there has been little movement toward implementing a county strategic plan that calls for new investments to make Hernando more economically viable and able to meet housing, social service and transportation needs.
Both the commission and School Board should develop a sense of urgency to devise reasonable project lists, present them to the voters for public debate and build consensus among business and community groups on the tax issue. Though a November general election referendum would be preferable, the School Board and commission should be given the opportunity to prepare their 2015 budgets knowing the outcome of the referendum. That pushes the logical date for the ballot question or questions to the Aug. 26 primary, five weeks before the start of the Oct. 1 county fiscal year and four months before the tax collection could begin on Jan. 1, 2015 — if voters approve. Here's the challenge facing each:
Commissioners already accepted County Administrator Len Sossamon's 14-goal strategic plan that includes investing $4 million to construct industrial spec buildings, advancing a sports entertainment complex on county owned land and preserving the county's environmental attributes. The written plan included no specific financing plan, but Sossamon has acknowledged a sales tax would be appropriate.
The task ahead is convincing a commission, with one member retiring and another facing re-election this year, to alter its prior strategies of tax swaps and delay tactics and to learn from experience.
In 2012, commission-authorized referenda terminated the environmentally sensitive lands program and earmarked property tax proceeds, formerly used to acquire and preserve green space, exclusively for mosquito control. But the penny pinching backfired and spending implications loom. The property tax failed to cover the expenses of mosquito control and that operation required a subsidy from the county's general budget. And, killing the environmental lands program means an eventual end to the commissioners' ploy of supplementing park maintenance costs with the proceeds from the sensitive land tax. A future source of revenue to maintain parks must be identified or the county faces the long-term prospect of further deteriorating or closing some county recreational space.
It's a familiar dilemma. Over the past five years, current and past commissioners exhausted extra reserve accounts to balance the annual budget and waived impact fees on new construction. That means future capital spending to meet the demands of growth is less viable. The county can't continue on this path, and commissioners must have the political will to ask voters to begin a renewed investment in Hernando's quality of life.
The Hernando School Board couldn't even convince all five of its own members on the need for a new, higher impact fee for classrooms. So they need to be better prepared to ask the public to renew the half-cent sales tax for education that expires at the end of 2014.
The numbers are compelling and mounting at the same time the district has lost revenue. The Legislature has directed no capital construction dollars to local districts for three consecutive years, and the district has forfeited about $2.2 million in impact fees since 2009.
Meanwhile, the district is looking at a $223 million, 10-year capital plan that includes $30 million for new classrooms, $10 million for technology upgrades, $73 million in maintenance to existing buildings and $110 million to pay off debts from past school construction. The half-cent sales tax, if renewed, is projected to raise $78 million over the next decade or just more than a third of capital spending needs. Board members should focus on this existing business plan and refrain from veering into inappropriate speculation about using sales tax dollars to subsidize transportation costs so every child can ride a bus to school.
The financial needs are well-documented. Now, School Board members and commissioners have to ask voters to help fill those needs.