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County seeks public support to clean water // A TAXING OPTION

A move to increase the sales tax to pay for environmental projects failed miserably in 1992. But as they seek a way to finance $60-million in water and sewer projects this year, county commissioners appear ready to try that route again.

During recent interviews, all five commissioners said they were leaning toward supporting a referendum that, if approved by the voters, would increase the sales tax either .5 percent or 1 percent.

The latter would bring in more than $7-million per year and allow the county to raise up to $90-million in bond revenue in 25 years.

The money would pay for a variety of projects that the county has identified as crucial for cleaning or protecting groundwater and surface water.

Commissioners say they plan to apply for grants to help fund the proposed water and sewer projects, but those grants likely will not cover all the work.

In 1992, a similar ballot option went down in flames. Some 61 percent of those who voted on the issue said "no."

County commissioners say they think 1997 is their year of victory.

For one thing, in 1992 the county did not definitively say how the money would be spent. There is no such ambiguity this time.

The referendum would spell out projects for which the revenues could be used and would set a date on which the tax would expire, through a so-called "sunset" clause.

In 1992, the referendum was on the ballot along with a full slate of political offices. This time, Commission Chairman Jim Fowler said, the referendum would be the sole item on the ballot.

"I think it has a better chance because this is going to be the only issue that we're going to be voting on," he said.

Of course, a few of the problems from 1992 still exist.

People who live on fixed incomes in central or east Citrus might balk at paying more taxes to improve sewer service and clean water on the west side. Also, people who now use septic tanks might blanch at the thought of paying a sewer bill once that service is forced on them.

Then again, as in 1992, tax increase supporters can note that the tax would be equitable in that it affects residents and visitors, homeowners and renters.

Also, the tax would provide a reliable revenue stream and could be collected without adding extra staff or a new program.

If voters do not support the sales tax increase, Fowler said their other choice is to accept a franchise fee on utility companies that use county property for their transmission lines.

Such a fee eventually would be passed on to customers through rates, Fowler said.

Other funding options also may come up during Tuesday's public workshop, said Commissioner Gary Bartell.

"If someone has a better idea of how to approach this and how to fund it, I want to hear about it," he said.

The sales tax, however, is the most popular option among commissioners.

Commissioner Roger Batchelor said he, like the others, is leaning toward a sales tax, although he remains open to suggestions.

"We want to try to come out of it with some kind of consensus," Batchelor said. "We want to try to build some consensus too."

Regardless of the funding method, though, commissioners say the bill will fall _ at least partially _ to Citrus residents.

"Someone has to pay for it," said Commissioner Brad Thorpe.