A narrowly divided Palm Beach County Commission decided Tuesday to postpone moving forward on a sales tax surcharge to fund transportation projects. The idea was proposed to offset money cut from the county’s transportation budget.
Assistant County Administrator Brad Merriman said the question had been discussed most recently at a March 27 workshop on Palm Tran’s Transit Development Plan.
“We are requesting board direction on whether or not we want to move forward with a ballot question in November to ask the voters for the implementation of what is called the Charter County and Regional Transportation Surtax,” Merriman said, explaining that the state legislature has authorized eight optional charges that counties can levy. “Palm Beach County does not levy any of them. Most Florida counties do levy one or more of these surtaxes.”
Palm Beach County is one of only nine counties, out of 67, that does not currently levy any local discretionary sales tax. State law allows charter counties to levy a discretionary sales tax, upon voter approval, of up to 1 percent. Proceeds from the proposed transportation tax could be applied to many transportation uses, including mass transit, roads, bridges and associated debt service. A 0.5 percent surcharge would generate about $103 million annually, according to the county’s staff report.
Miami-Dade and Duval counties already have a similar charge in place, while Alachua County, home to Gainesville, will vote in November on whether to levy two such charges: three-quarters of one cent for roads and a quarter of a cent for transit, Merriman said.
Money raised by the surcharge could be used to offset a portion of property taxes, he said. “The Department of Revenue estimates that approximately 20 percent of our sales tax revenue in this county is paid for by tourists, people who do not pay property taxes but use the transportation infrastructure,” Merriman said.
If the county is going to have a ballot question in November, that language would have to be submitted to the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections by Aug. 10.
Pat Cooper of the Palm Beach Civic Association was one of several members of the public to speak on the issue.
“We feel that this motion to put this surtax on the ballot is premature at this time,” Cooper said. “While there is safety in numbers — many of the counties do have surcharges — I always thought it was pretty neat that Palm Beach County didn’t have that tax in place. It’s an ace in the hole for bond ratings, or however you wanted to view it down the road should things get dire. I don’t see that it’s dire, so we are not in favor of this at this time.”
Blake Mattingly favored the surcharge in light of a shortage of money for Palm Tran.
“According to a national study, it takes South Florida commuters about 40 percent longer to get to their jobs during the busiest travel hours than at other times of the day,” he said, noting that the cost of the delay in lost productivity and wasted fuel equals more than $2.5 billion for all of South Florida, which averages about $1,000 per person each year.
Mattingly added that the surcharge would provide economic stimulus for the county. “Every dollar that taxpayers invest in public transportation generates $6 or more in economic returns,” he said.
Commissioner Priscilla Taylor asked whether they could postpone the question until they could look into it further, explaining that the proposal lacked specific needs to be met.
Commissioner Steven Abrams agreed that the discussion is premature. “I think this is a half-baked proposal, and I’m disappointed that it was brought forward without a plan to spend the money, without a plan, if any, to offset existing taxes,” he said.
Abrams said he looked at it as a backdoor attempt to offset road repair financing that commissioners cut from last year’s budget.
Commissioner Karen Marcus said she would like to get more feedback from the public. “I think this year is too soon,” she said. “If we feel this is something that needs to be out there, we need to build the consensus for it and educate people.”
Commission Chair Shelley Vana agreed from her experience on the House of Representatives’ Budget Committee that road programs stimulate the economy and agreed that many roads in the county are now in bad shape.
“In the state, there is an infrastructure backlog of billions of dollars,” she said. “In Palm Beach County, we’re going to start seeing the same kind of backlog, and I’m seeing it in my district. I’m having lots of people call and complain about what’s happening with our roads.”
Vana said she would not be averse to a transportation surcharge but thought it should have a sunset and should include an evaluation on whether property owners will get a commensurate reduction in property taxes.
Commissioner Burt Aaronson said that he would like staff to come back with a more complete proposal.
“Let us know all the numbers,” he said. “I think if we came out not only revenue-neutral but revenue-beneficial to the taxpayers, [they] would have a completely different thought, especially if there is a sunset provision.”
Commissioner Paulette Burdick said she considered the sales tax regressive. “There are many people in Palm Beach County who are going to be negatively impacted by this, and it’s the poorest of the poor because they are the ones who are going to be paying this,” she said. “I haven’t heard a public outcry that our roads are in terrible condition. Probably in a few years maybe we will, but I don’t hear that right now. I think it’s premature to put it on the ballot this November.”
Taylor made a motion to postpone the item for at least 30 days but before the time frame to get it on the ballot, but the motion failed 4-3 with Commissioners Jess Santamaria, Marcus, Burdick and Abrams dissenting.
Abrams then made a motion to postpone action on the surcharge for at least a year, which carried 4-3 with Taylor, Vana and Aaronson opposed.