CHAMPIONSGATE – For municipal leaders in Osceola and Polk counties, it all seemed to make perfect sense: create a special taxing system to help fund much-needed road improvements and to expand mass ransportation to help people find jobs.
There was just one challenge: county leaders were asking voters to approve ballot referendums to raise taxes for these projects. With the economy still struggling and the unemployment rate stubbornly high, voters in both counties solidly defeated the two referendums, sending elected officials back to the drawing board. Where they go from here is still an open question.
Doug Guetzloe, leader of the grassroots anti-tax group Ax the Tax, noted that a third ballot referendum to raise taxes for a rail project also lost in Hillsborogh County, making it three in a row. Ax the Tax was involved in fighting all three referendums, Guetzloe said.
“We did some direct mail and some robo calls down there in Polk,” he said. “We figured it would go down anyway, but we helped add to that.”
The Polk County referendum would have imposed a half-cent sales surtax to create a single mass transit system that would serve the entire county. It lost solidly, 62 percent to 38 percent.
Tom Harris, a member of the Polk County School Board, said it was proposed because bus systems exist in cities like Lakeland and Winter Haven, but do not reach out to more rural parts of Polk County.
“There’s not a countywide bus system, so it’s real difficult for people in remote areas to get around,” he said.
Creating a bus route that serves all of Polk County, he said, would make it easier for residents to find jobs, regardless of where they live.
“If you solve the transportation issue, you can help solve the economic issue,” Harris said.
Polk County leaders also pushed the referendum because the county’s mass transit systems are now funded by the federal government. But solid population growth in Polk County over the past decade means Polk is now classified by the federal government as an urban county, while the federal transportation funding it gets are intended for smaller, more rural counties.
Harris said Polk’s municipal leaders are looking at the possibility of putting the issue back on the ballot in 2012.
“There is a conversation in Polk County on addressing it two years from now,” he said.
But Guetzloe said the defeat of all three measures should send a pretty loud signal to county commissioners that voters already feel taxed enough and don’t have faith in these proposals.
“Look at Osceola County,” Guetzloe said. “They lost. In Osceola, it was 72 percent again. We had an active Ax the Tax effort down there, too.”
Sonny Buoncervello, a Realtor in the Celebration area, said Osceola leaders didn’t get the message out that if voters raised their sales tax, tourists would pay a good share of the tax hike, and that the road improvements are desperately needed. He noted that the business community actively campaigned against a statewide referendum, Amendment 4, which would have required voter approval before land use plans could be altered to allow more commercial development. Amendment 4 lost statewide in a landslide.
But business leaders were not as vocal in supporting the Osceola road tax, Buoncervello said.
“Amendment 4 had a lot of exposure, and we all knew to vote against it,” he said. “But I don’t think there was a strong enough effort to get the average voter to understand (the Osceola tax hike referendum). You really had to get into people’s psyches to explain it. I don’t know if we really educated the public that tourists would pay a large share of the tax.”
Gene Terrico is the manager of Street Outdoor-Osceola County, a program founded with the West 192 BeautiVacation Project to address advertising needs along West U.S. 192, from Four Corners to Walt Disney World to Kissimmee. He said while road improvements are needed in Osceola County, the timing of the referendum couldn’t have been worse.
“It was a bad year for a tax,” he said. “No new taxes, it’s a one liner that works. It’s awkward, because I’m not sure there was a listening side to the message. People were just not interested, and that’s the day we live in now.”
Harris said a new law prohibiting elected officials from spending money to promote or defeat a ballot referendum has made it more difficult for county leaders to get out the message about how the tax hike would help the community. That means they have to rely more on private sector supporters to get the message out.
“Legislatively, the landscape has changed,” Harris said. “It kind of ties our hands.”