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Civic groups sting tax idea

The Citrus County Council objects to a sales tax increase being considered to fund local projects. The county staff is compiling a list of funding options and needed projects.

Although it is not yet an official proposal, the idea of raising the sales tax a penny to help fund local projects has encountered its first critics.

The Citrus County Council, a coalition of 22 civic associations that represent about 8,000 members, sent a letter last Friday saying the county should explore other funding avenues, such as special taxing districts and increased impact fees, before bringing another 1-cent sales tax proposal to voters. The letter went to the county commissioners and constitutional officers.

"The (council) member delegates conclude that Citrus County taxpayers should not support an additional 1 percent sales tax until county government can demonstrate that other tax options have been optimized and implemented," states the letter, which was approved at the group's March 14 meeting.

"We don't say that we're in opposition to (a sales tax)," council president Patricia Cowen said Tuesday. "We're just asking for a justification of it."

Citrus voters have twice rejected proposals to boost the state's 6 percent sales tax in the past decade to pay for water quality projects. But commissioners returned to the concept during their goal-setting session last month, saying a sales tax could enjoy broader support if the revenue was split between water quality projects, the Sheriff's Office and the public school system.

Acknowledging their failure to persuade voters in the past, commissioners said they would have to do a better job of showing the public exactly where the dollars would go if a sales tax hike were to be approved.

But no proposal is on the table yet. The commission asked county staff last month to prepare a list of projects that need funding, along with estimates of revenue from different taxing options, so the board can decide whether to put a sales tax proposal to the voters.

County Administrator Richard Wesch said Tuesday that he hopes to have that information ready for commissioners by late April or early May.

Cowen sat through the goal-setting session and said she understands the need for central water and sewer lines, a new radio system for the Sheriff's Office and another high school. But she said the council thinks that the county should dig deeper into other funding sources.

She pointed to impact fees, the one-time construction tax intended to make new residents and businesses pay for the increased demand they bring on public facilities.

Although commissioners raised some of the impact fees in January, Cowen said the council is disappointed that the county left the fees that help fund law enforcement, fire services and ambulance services at 1989 levels so additional studies could be done to determine appropriate increases.

Cowen said those fees need to be brought up to date as soon as possible. The council also thinks the county should consider creating an impact fee for water and sewer projects.

Commissioners have shown interest in a water-sewer impact fee, although they are holding off on that idea until they see the results of a consultant's study on possible rate increases for the county's water and wastewater systems, Development Services Director Gary Maidhof said.

But Wesch said impact fees can pay only for new facilities needed to serve a new population.

"You can't use impact fees to remedy known, existing deficiencies," he said, noting that many of the county's water quality projects will serve the current population.

The council's letter also suggests using special taxing districts, a concept that County Attorney Robert Battista is looking into, Wesch said.

"Given the extent of our needs countywide, I don't believe there is any one funding alternative. It will take a combination of funding alternatives to meet those needs," Wesch said. "Multifaceted problems require multifaceted funding approaches."