Walton County Board of County Commissioners addressed the topic of infrastructure needs at its last meeting, and how to pay to meet those needs. The possibility of adding a half-cent sales tax to be used for these projects was the major topic.
The last surtax for infrastructure in Walton County was in 2013.
A half cent could generate $10 million annually for bridge and road projects, finance manager Melissa Thomason told commissioners.
Currently, $8 million is going straight to infrastructure.
"A surtax is straight forward and may be used for roads and bridges, and other infrastructure projects in the county such as public facilities with life expectancies of five or more years," she said.
A referendum would be required for such action, and initiating that would be at the discretion of the commissioners.
"If a tax is enacted, it would have a sunset, or ending date," she said.
District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander said she has been looking at this for a while as the county has enacted surtaxes for years to be able to pay for roads and other projects.
"I have done a bunch of research," Comander said. "We paid off the 331 bridge in such a short amount of time that no one expected. If we can have a half-cent tax and have it go to roads and bridges, that would save the $8 million. Otherwise, we will have to raise taxes."
District 1 Commissioner Bill Chapman said he has 90 miles of dirt roads in his district alone, and there are 40 miles of roadways throughout the county that could be paved, provided the county had the money.
"These 40 miles have the right of way, easements, etc., to move forward, but funding is limited and we try to put over a million dollars a year towards paving roads," Chapman told The Sun. "I don't have the exact number, but countywide, we probably have more than 300 miles of unpaved roads.
"Due to major rain events in 2013 and 2014, we were able to get FEMA monies to fix a lot of the roads," he added. "We are using mill-mat instead of just dirt and this has helped in maintenance cost. These roads hold up longer and require less maintenance than just dirt. It will take 150 years to cover the 40 miles (without the half cent tax). If we don't consider this, we will all be dead and gone before they get repaired."
The half-cent tax that helped pay for the new 331 Bridge was 60 to 65 percent paid for by tourists, said Comander.
District 5 Commissioner Tony Anderson asked if the half-cent would be attached to food or medicine, and he was assured that it would not.
Thomason said a cap could be put on purchases costing $5,000 or more.
When the audience was given the opportunity to speak, Coy Bowman asked how tourists will pay for the tax if food is not taxed.
"It will fall on citizens for the benefit of tourists," she said. "Why not go back to the original idea of making the bridge a toll bridge? Every other bridge has it. Tourists come across it for free. Our roads are abused by those tourists. Y'all are out of your minds."
However, Freeport resident Bill Fletcher disagreed.
"Tourists would pay one time coming across the bridge. Working people would pay twice daily. It's a good deal," he said.
Comander said there are 82 miles of roads in South Walton alone that are on a critical list, and north Walton as well.
"We need to do something," said Anderson.
Commissioners voted to direct County Attorney Mark Davis to draft language for an eventual half-cent sales tax referendum that would be presented for a public vote at a to-be-determined time.
Davis advised commissioners that they would need to place it on a commission agenda before going to referendum.