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Reject Citrus' 1-cent sales tax plan for new jail

Who can blame Citrus voters if they feel complete frustration about the proposed 1-cent sales tax to pay for a new county jail? It's not that anyone honestly believes the jail isn't needed. The two current jail buildings already are at capacity, and the demands only are going to increase as the county grows.

It's not even that voters think they can get out of paying for a new jail if they turn down the sales tax. Officials already have warned that if the sales tax doesn't pass, the county will jack up property taxes and build the jail with that money.

It's just that the whole jail building project has been so mishandled by the County Commission that many voters are tempted to vote down the sales tax as a way to vent their rage over the whole bizarre mess.

Why should voters give county commissioners the power to collect at least $20-million in taxes over the next four years when these officials already have proved their lack of fiscal responsibility by spending nearly $500,000 to have jail plans drawn for a piece of property the county doesn't even own?

Why should voters trust commissioners to question every facet of the building procedure when most of them have accepted without question the trading of 100 acres of county property for 100 acres owned by a blind trust _ even though there's no appraisal to show the trust's property is as valuable as the county's or, for that matter, even as desirable for a jail site?

Why should voters give approval for a jail when they don't know for sure where it will be built, how much it will cost and how many prisoners it will hold?

The question then becomes: Is rejecting the sales tax the proper way for voters to express their anger?

On its face, the sales tax seems the smartest way to go. Unlike property taxes, with a sales tax everyone pays _ from the tourist spending the weekend to the snowbird spending three months in the sunshine.

In addition, the sales tax has an end. No matter what, come Dec. 31, 1994, the tax stops. And, because it collects a great deal of money in a short period of time, the interest expense would be relatively low.

Property taxes would be collected at a lower rate. Officials say it would take 10 to 15 years to pay off the bond _ and that means longer, thus higher, interest costs.

Last, the referendum clearly states that the tax must be spent only on a jail facility _ not vehicles, not overdue bills, not raises for county employees.

One of the tax's strengths, of course, is also one of its greatest weaknesses. A sales tax hits the poor the same as it hits the wealthy. The frail widow, the disabled war veteran and the young family scrimping by on tiny incomes pay at the same rate as the rich property owner.

A county official said a study made by Sarasota officials indicated a 1-cent sales tax would cost every household $77 a year. In Citrus, an area not as free-spending as Sarasota, that probably would be less.

What would be least expensive for the average homeowner?

If the county imposed a mill annual property tax to pay for the jail, as suggested, the owner of a home assessed at $60,000 with a $25,000 homestead exemption would pay about $11.55 year, or about $150 during the life of the bonds. Four years of 1-cent sales tax, by contrast, would cost that person $250 to $300 in a much shorter length of time.

Perhaps that's why big property owners are pushing the sales tax instead of a property tax.

Some might say, "Impose the sales tax, collect it quickly and get it over with." Others might say, "Someone else will pay a big part of it, perhaps tourists and part-time residents," though no one has shown hard figures proving this contention.

And commissioners might say, "Trust us. It's only a matter of how you'll pay for the jail. With a sales tax, we'll collect only as much as we need and, believe us, we'll do what is right with the money."

But voters must ask, "Have commissioners been consistent, courageous and trustworthy regarding the jail project? Or have they grandstanded and politicked throughout the whole affair?"

Under normal circumstances, the Times would recommend voters support the sales tax, pay for the jail and be done with it.

Unfortunately, the Citrus situation is not normal. It is jumbled; it is uncertain; it is puzzling. The very idea that the commission would deal with a blind trust whose members insist on anonymity is outrageous.

Voters must send a message that such duplicity will not be tolerated. Unfortunately, at this time, the only way that message can be conveyed is with a "no" vote to the sales tax.

The Times, with regret, recommends that voters reject the 1-cent sales tax at this time.