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County Sales Tax to Drop

BY George Andreassi
by George Andreassi on 6/20/01.

Several county residents urged the commissioners to go forward with the sales tax referendum and one came out against it.

STUART - Martin County's sales tax will go down by 1 percent Jan. 1 as a result of a decision by county commissioners Tuesday to abandon plans to extend the sales tax for three years to pay for an ambitious $48 million building program.

After a heated hourlong discussion, county commissioners voted 3-2 against going forward with a $180,000 referendum on the proposed sales tax extension.

Commissioner Elmira Gainey, who initially supported the sales tax, said she changed her mind because she couldn't answer many questions her constituents asked about the building program.

"I came to the realization that I couldn't really tell them that we had a plan because I don't feel we have a plan," Gainey said. "The 1 cent sales tax is the way to go, but we need to have a plan . . . so that we can say to our public 'this is what we are going to do specifically with the dollars.'"

She said the commission should formulate a 10-year plan that includes all the major projects that will meet the needs of the county's growing population.

"We have to stop nickeling and diming it and doing the temporary fixes," Gainey said.

Gainey was joined in voting against the sales tax referendum by Commissioners Michael DiTerlizzi and Lee Weberman.

All three said they wanted to go through the annual budget process this summer before deciding whether to pursue the sales tax in 2002.

Weberman and DiTerlizzi also cited a public opinion poll that indicated the county's voters opposed the sales tax extension by a margin of almost 2-1.

"What (the) survey tells us is people don't think yet that we're fiscally responsible," Weberman said. "There's no support out there. This referendum will go down to defeat big time."

"We don't have a plan yet," he said. "We're ill-prepared. We're rushing for some artificial deadline."

Commission Chairman Dennis Armstrong strongly disagreed.

"For anyone to sit here and say that we have no plan, I hope you will excuse my French, it's plain bull," he said. "We have a plan. It's called the CIE/CIP (Capital Improvement Plan.)

"I would suggest that there's never a right time and that no one likes a tax, " Armstrong said. "It's not an easy decision. We all know we need to do these things. No one has the backbone to do it now. We'll get around to it someday, I guess. But who knows when someday will be?"

Commissioner Doug Smith also supported the sales tax referendum.

"To suggest that we're going to create a plan that's going to be earth shattering and wonderful six months from now because we had more time to put into, I think that's slapping staff a little bit upside the head," he said.

Smith said he campaigned on a promise to provide funding for projects such as parks, educational facilities and economic development.

The proposed referendum would have asked voters to approve a 1 percent sales tax starting Jan. 1 for three years. It would replace the 1 percent sales tax passed three years ago to buy lands for preservation. That tax is set to expire Dec. 31.

Among the projects the sales tax would have paid for are $18.4 million for major park facilities, $12 million for improvements to the sheriff's compound, $6.5 million for a new emergency operations center, $5.7 million for new courtrooms and government offices, and $5 million to move the county's field operations center off Witham Field.

Several county residents urged the commissioners to go forward with the sales tax referendum and one came out against it.

Ray Adams, a Palm City resident and member of the government watchdog group Citizens for a Sound Economy, told commissioners he was prepared to mount a campaign against the proposed sales tax to pay for what he called "political pet projects."

But Jensen Beach resident Donna Banister, who has been active in the efforts to develop Indian Riverside Park, urged commissioners to go forward with the sales tax referendum despite the opposition.