Whether Polk County voters will once again be asked to raise the local sales tax to finance future road projects will be on the Polk County Commission agenda Tuesday.
If commissioners agree, which is not a foregone conclusion, the measure will be on the November 2024 ballot.
Sierra, which lobbied for a referendum last year to ask voters to increase taxes to buy environmental lands, has no position on whether this measure should be placed on the ballot.
There is quite a bit of background to this request.
The development community-influenced County Commission has placed a series of road tax measures on the ballot dating to 1992. Voters have rejected all of them.
The only advance in road funding came with the approval two decades ago of a significant property tax increase, which did not require voter approval, on homeowners and businesses as the result of a heavily choreographed business community backed Polk Vision campaign that focused on a multimillion-dollar infrastructure deficit. That deficit was primarily the result of the County Commission’s refusal –at the bidding of the development community–to levy impact fees on new development.
And even when commissioners finally agreed to levy impact fees, they never agreed to levy the full amount recommended by consultants.
That tax bite for developer priorities increased slightly in 2015 when instead of cutting taxes after the 1994 environmental lands tax expired, commissioners simply repurposed part of the tax to pay for road projects and other budget priorities.
County Commissioner George Lindsey, the main proponent for the measure, appears to be enlisting support from city officials to promote the idea, according to the County Commission agenda.
If commissioners agree to place the measure on the ballot, our main issue will involve just what projects would be funded if voters approve the measure.
Sometimes in Bartow it is hard to know what is a real need and what is simply something on some developer’s or transportation planner’s wish list.
The lack of transparency on road funding expenditure decisions complicates this discussion.
Earlier this year commissioners agreed to pay $10.8 million in cash and impact fee credits to a combination of dummy corporations related to a local developer to pay for the construction of a new road whose main purpose seemed to be to allow for the development of the developer’s landlocked parcel, with the promise of more funding for future road projects to extend the same road in another direction. If you listened to the narrative relating to the agenda item at the commission meeting, you would have learned nothing about this arrangement.
There are certainly traffic congestion problems in parts of Polk County– which has been proudly billed by local boosters as one of the fastest growing counties in the nation.
Whether increasing taxes to try to ameliorate the problems is simply delusional, good public policy or a scam to simply open up more undeveloped land to sprawl will be up to the voters to sort out if the measure reaches the ballot.