The penny sales tax would have generated an estimated $182 million over 10 years

MILTON — Although many Santa Rosa County residents say they want improved roadways, better schools and other public enhancements to their quality of life, they rejected a sales tax for the fourth time since 2002.

The penny sales tax that would have generated an estimated $182 million over 10 years for those type of projects met with anti-tax voters who turned it down 17,529 to 8,581, or 67.1% against and 32.8% for with all 41 precincts reporting.

Instead, the county residents will have to rely on the half-cent sales tax they approved by nearly 60% Aug. 30, 2016, which comes to an end Jan. 1, 2022.

Dave Murzin, a former state house representative, led the penny sales tax effort for Santa Rosa County.

“This would have gone a long way to solving challenges like roads and flooding that have existed for a while,” Murzin said. “Maybe the naysayers can come up with a plan. Maybe they can come up with higher property taxes or will support an MSBU or MSTU for the next 30 years.”

Elaine Smith was a main opponent, serving as president of the Santa Rosa County Voters Against Overcrowded Roads and Schools.

“I’m thrilled to death because people now are aware and energized,” Smith said. “Very intelligent people are digging up facts and putting them out there.”

The penny sales tax would have replaced the half-cent sales tax for the next decade with 50% or approximately $82.5 million of the funds for transportation and drainage projects, 30% or about $49.5 million going to public safety primarily for 45 new police cars and 12 new fire trucks, and 20% or nearly $33 million for quality of life projects, such as new athletic fields and walking and biking paths.

Through Sept. 1, 2019, the county with the 11th fastest growth rate in Florida, collected $21,145,392 to help keep up with much-needed infrastructure projects.

To date, the county has resurfaced 41 miles with the sales tax, spent $7.1 million on the Sheriff’s Office and fire departments, and used $4 million in sales tax to leverage an additional $10 million in state and federal grants for other infrastructure projects.

Many voters, such as Rene Rudzki of Navarre, said she changed her mind and voted against the penny. She doesn’t trust county leaders in the north end to treat south end residents equally.

“I was in agreement with it initially,” Rudzki said. “I thought, ‘A penny, what’s the big deal?’ Then, I thought the south end of the county is where funds are generated but that’s not where the tax dollars will be spent. I feel very good about the decision I made.”

Janet Longdin of Navarre also rejected raising the sales tax from a half-cent to a penny. She doesn’t trust commissioners, either.

“All the people up there (in Milton) use the money for themselves, instead of on us,” Longdin said.

Opponents played on those fears by calling “corrupt” the pro-penny campaign support from builders and developers in the amount of $88,900. They also muddled the sales tax debate by calling for the county to implement impact fees, instead. An impact fee is a one-time payment by people who buy new homes.

Phillip Hoffman, also a member of Santa Rosa County Voters Against Overcrowded Roads and Schools, said the citizens will now work to replace District 1 commissioner Sam Parker, District 3 commissioner Don Salter and District 5 commissioner Lane Lynchard.

“We’re building a campaign on three words — us versus them,” Hoffman said. “We’re very, very pleased. We worked very, very hard. I’ve waved a sign over my head since last Monday.”

There were some residents who supported the sales tax, like Joe Vance, a Navarre resident for 14 years. He cast a ‘yes’ vote on the penny sales tax because of its support of law enforcement and fire fighters.

“It could have been a nickel,” Vance said. “It wouldn’t have mattered to me.”

Blake Avant said he wished Santa Rosa County voters would have educated themselves better about the penny sales tax and the projects it would have paid for. Avant said he also supported it because he felt the sales tax was a more fair way to raise money than increasing property taxes.

Santa Rosa County residents pay the second to last least amount of taxes in Florida at $813 a year.

“There are more advantages to getting a sales tax,” he said. “It’s a good benefit.”