Age has given me a perspective I never had. I know now, for instance, what happens when we eat, every day, a little more than we exercise. Over time our clothes begin to creak and give way to the pressure of too much stuff in a too small a container. Yet we lie to ourselves again, because to do is easy, and there’s no one really looking. Okaloosa County has done just that. If our County had grown up wearing a tie, by now we’d all have strangled.
This opinion addresses whether we have outgrown our transportation system, why, and whether a sales tax is the best, or maybe the only, way to pay for what we need.
1. Do we really have a need?
No is an honorable answer. There are some people who honestly don’t see what isn’t there. For instance, every day we line cars up to get onto highway 123 between Shalimar and Crestview, and to get onto Highway 85 from 123. The line is long, and the dart across 85 can be treacherous. Some people genuinely don’t see that an elevated interchange would save incalculable time, gasoline, and if built years ago, lives.
Highway 123 is a state road. But everywhere in Florida, where a state road improvement is a local priority, local government seed money gets it going. How else could one explain advancing the priority of the changes to Weuerffel Way to accommodate the Destin Commons, except that the Developer put in money to get it moving? Our County hasn’t had the money to do that with any road, anywhere, since building the College Blvd. and Martin Luther King extensions more than 20 years ago.
Crestview has promise of taking a new role in the county’s leadership and community planning. That promise will evaporate unless we can do more than simply plan alternative routes around the City. Whole new traffic patterns should be developed around Fort Walton to accommodate a court house annex, and Destin and Niceville roads need help in ways that affect and should involve the entire county.
As I see it, we can stay like we are, but if we do, the result will be a mess of greater and greater proportions. Like the overweight, sluggish lawyer I described in the first paragraph, we’ve put too much stuff in too small a container. We can ignore the feeling, but we’ll always be uncomfortable.
2. How did we get like this?
That’s simple, and at the same time, maybe not. The 1986 Growth Management Act in Florida just may be the most progressive legislation this state will ever see. The Act says that no county or city will grant development permits if to do so would reduce roads, utilities, and drainage below an acceptable level of service. The trouble is, the Act didn’t provide any money, and it did not stop the development industry from an irrefutable need to build. The “industry” is not just builders. It includes Realtors, bankers, title and mortgage companies, and a wide part of the local economy. Roads and sewer systems have no lobbyists, and no spokesmen. The have only the Growth Management Act, to which most local governments have responded by simply redefining, or ignoring the level of service that is “acceptable”. To have done otherwise would have threatened the development industry.
Another reason we’re so far behind is that commissioners have gotten elected in this country for the last 20 or so years by promising to keep millage rates low. They’ve done that, and by extreme good fortune appraisal values have escalated so dramatically that the county has been able to fund its operating budget with ad valorem tax receipts. At the same time, new transportation and utilities construction have been slowly stripped from the general fund expenditures in the county budget. None is now paid from ad valorem tax receipts.
The result is that our elected commissioners have done what they promised, they’ve kept millage low. What they haven’t always done, until now (because we punish them if they do) is tell us the whole truth. The truth is that they can operate the county and keep the millage low, but they can’t do that and also make roads and needed utilities keep pace with private development. No message could be more clear.
3. Is the Sales tax necessary?
None of us needs more property taxes. A sales tax more fairly distributes the burden of tax to those who will enjoy its benefits. There’s not one reason for the elected Board Chairman (who happens to be an accountant), to tell us we need this tax if we did not desperately need this tax. I intend to support the sales tax initiative, and I believe all of us whose incomes depend on development, realtors, builders, bankers, and even lawyers, are less than honest if we continue to enjoy the benefits of continued development without being willing to step up to the costs of that development.