Polk Commissioners May OK Road Tax Hike To Make Up For Impact Fee Moratorium, Sales Tax Defeat

You can’t say you weren’t warned.

In 2014 County Manager Jim Freeman said he would recommend a property tax increase if the sales tax referendum, whose proceeds would have been used to pay for road projects, didn’t’ pass.

Voters overwhelmingly defeated the tax measure.

The first tax increase occurred in 2015 when the County Commission took half of the .2 of a mill taxing authority allocated to purchasing environmental lands, which had expired that year, and diverted it to the road program.

The second tax increase, which could be as much as an additional 1 mill, could be in next year’s budget.

The decision came out of the commission’s annual retreat, The Ledger reports.

Here’s the rest of the story.

One of the reasons voters were unexcited about increasing the sales tax for roads is that the County Commission had a source of income to pay for growth-related road projects, but wasn’t using it.

That was the road impact fee.

Commissioners suspended charging road impact fees for five years , which meant $30.6 million that would have gone to fix road problems went uncollected. However, even at that rate Polk was charging half of what the county’s impact fee consultant study said was necessary in 2009, the year before the impact fee moratorium began.

And, even after the impact fee moratorium was lifted, commissioners charged a discounted rate for the first year, which increased the deficit.

The County Commission began imposing impact fees in 1989, but the charges were minimal until 2004 because of the influence of the Polk County Builders Association. PCBA was also behind the moratorium.

The fees finally increased along with property taxes in 2004 and 2005 respectively after a business group called Polk Vision held a series of skillfully choreographed meetings that led to the issuance of report stating Polk had a $581.7 million infrastructure gap involving needed but unfunded road, parks and other public facility projects. That report was used to justify a major property tax increase and Polk’s first-ever park impact fees.

Now, thanks at least in part to the impact fee moratorium, Polk County is in a similar situation as it was nearly 15 years ago as a result of subsidizing development. And, as in 2005, the general public is being asked to pay for the bailout.

Some of the projects mentioned in The Ledger’s story from the retreat are carryovers from the 2014 sales tax referendum wish list.

They include widening Spirit Lake Road from Winter Lake Road to U.S. 17, which was priced at $63 million, and Marigold Avenue from Cypress Parkway to Coyote Road, which was priced at $18 million. They also include some neglected growth-related road projects such as Lake Wilson Road from Ronald Reagan Parkway to the Osceola County line, Cypress Parkway in Poinciana and County Road 557 between Lake Alfred and Interstate 4. There are no cost estimates on those projects. There may be more projects.

If this additional road tax increase is to be included in next year’s budget, the figures will have to come together no later than April or so. Commissioners get an early estimate of property tax values from Property Appraiser Marsha Faux’s office by late May and probably have a good idea sooner than that. Freeman has to present a balanced budget in early July. Estimated tax notices go out in August and budget hearings are in September.

Sierra has not taken a position on this proposal, but it’s definitely an issue to watch.