Florida Today

August 23, 2016

 

Commissioners put half-percent sales tax for lagoon on ballot

By Dave Berman

http://www.floridatoday.com/story/news/local/environment/lagoon/2016/08/23/commissioners-put-half-percent-sales-tax-lagoon-ballot/89106896

A proposal to institute a half-percent sales tax to help pay for restoration of the Indian River Lagoon is headed for the Nov. 8 ballot.

Brevard County commissioners unanimously voted Tuesday to put the measure on the ballot although Commissioner Trudie Infantini had qualms about the sales tax. The 5-0 vote mirrors apreliminary vote by commissioners two weeks ago.

Infantini says she does not personally support the sales tax idea, but does support cleanup of the lagoon.

"No matter how I vote, I'm going to get in trouble," Infantini said. "I'm absolutely against this, but I'm going to vote for it," so Brevard voters have an opportunity to decide the issue at the ballot box.

The proposal calls for a half-cent-on-the-dollar special sales tax for the next 10 years that would raise a total of $340 million.

If voters approve, the sales tax is designed to pay for the "Save Our Lagoon Project Plan" devised by Brevard County's Natural Resources Management Department and outside consultants. That $302.9 million, 10-year plan for restoring the lagoon within Brevard County includes such things as muck removal, stormwater projects, upgrades to wastewater treatment facilities, septic system removal and upgrades, fertilizer management, oyster reef projects and public education.

In recent years, the lagoon has experienced algae blooms, brown tide, fish kills, and an unusual number of unexplained deaths of dolphins, manatees and pelicans.

Seven of the 10 speakers to address the commission Tuesday on this issue said they support the lagoon cleanup plan and the sales tax to help pay for it.

South Merritt Island resident Vince Lamb said he is working with others in the community to form a "Save Our Lagoon" political committee to raise money to pay for yard signs, mailings and other printed material to encourage voters to support the tax on Nov. 8.

North Merritt Island resident Philip Stasik, president of the Space Coast Progressive Alliance, told commissioners that he is aware there is "political risk for some of you" in supporting putting the sales tax on the ballot. But, he said, "If you continue to stand by the lagoon, we will continue to stand by you. Working together, we can make this happen."

Satellite Beach resident Gail Meredith told commissioners that "the community seems to be coming together really well to support" the sales tax. She encouraged commissioners to unanimously support the plan, and not be "penny-wise and pound-foolish."

In comments directed at Infantini, Meredith said: "I hope that you agree, and that we'll all be as one heart behind this."

Infantini said that, while she supports improving the condition of the lagoon, "I'm not always happy with how we spend the taxpayers' money."

Among the speakers opposing the sales tax proposal was Pam La Salle of Viera, who said she was not convinced that there would be adequate oversight in how the sales tax money is spent. She contends that there are vested interests by people who formulated the plan.

"I don't think anyone wants dirty water, " La Salle said. "But we do want our money spent wisely."

The sales tax proposal includes creation of a Save Our Lagoon Oversight Committee of seven members and seven alternates from the community with expertise in one or more of these fields: science, technology, economics/finance, real estate, education/outreach, tourism and lagoon advocacy. Half the committee would be appointed by the County Commission and half by the Space Coast League of Cities.

But Infantini said she is not confident in the decision-making of county advisory boards. Infantini also said she believes that more money should come to Brevard from the state for lagoon cleanup projects, and that the county should be more aggressive in trying to find ways to use money raised by the county's 5 percent Tourist Development Tax on hotel rooms and other short-term rentals for lagoon projects.

Commissioners who support that sales tax say that the lagoon plan and the sales tax could lead to $300 million or more in matching funds from the state and federal governments.

Earlier in Tuesday's meeting, U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, indicated his support for the County Commission's effort to find ways to address the lagoon's problems.

"I appreciate the action that you all took to take it by the horns, and say: 'Hey, we're not going to debate this thing to death, and we're going to try to do something about it,'" Posey said during his legislative update presentation. "And my hat is off to you for doing that. Working together, we can fix that thing."

Contact Berman at 321-242-3649 or dberman@floridatoday.com.

Twitter: @bydaveberman

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