Okaloosa County officials are looking to have a mail-in ballot special election April 10 rather than by the end of this year for voters to decide whether to approve a 5-year, half-cent sales tax.
While county commissioners earlier this month hoped the election could take place before Christmas, Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux said that scenario would make it difficult to prepare for and administer the election.
“I know there has been some discussion to try to hasten that referendum to try to get it done before the end of the year, but based on Mr. Lux’s feedback, currently (the April 10 date) is what he’s targeting,” county Administrator John Hofstad told commissioners Tuesday.
If approved by a simple majority of voters, the sales tax would generate an estimated $17 million annually for capital improvement projects such as road and drainage work in the unincorporated areas and local municipalities.
Hofstad said local town and city managers soon will bring to their respective elected boards lists of projects that would benefit from the tax. County officials might receive information on those projects in October, he said.
Hofstad previously has said the county could use revenue from the tax to help pay for an expansion of the jail, the paving of some of the north county’s 200 miles of unpaved roads and other projects.
County and municipal officials say it’s important to present their project lists to constituents to show the benefits of the sales tax.
Lux said Friday there just isn’t enough time to conduct a mail-in ballot before the end of this year.
For example, he said the county’s plan for the election must receive approval from the Florida secretary of state, which could take a week or more. Lux also has to order more than 100,000 envelopes for the ballots, many of which must be sent out early to military members overseas. Production of the ballots and envelopes could take about a month.
Lux also considered upcoming holidays and the state’s election deadlines in his recommendation for an April 10 special election.
“It was too tight of a schedule” to have the election by the end of the year, he said.
If the special election had taken place before the end of the year and voters approved the sales tax, it would have taken effect Jan. 1, 2018. If voters approve the referendum in April, the tax will take effect Jan. 1, 2019.
While the election apparently will take place later than initially anticipated, it will give local government officials more time to present their capital project lists to taxpayers.
For an April 10 election, ballots would be sent out Feb. 23 to military members both in and outside of the country. A mass mail-out of ballots for the rest of the voters would take place March 21.
“By state law, we have to have an election day,” Lux said of the April 10 date. “We must have all of the submitted ballots by 7 p.m. that day.”
Election staffers will begin tabulating the votes April 4, he said.
The estimated cost of the special election is $110,000 to $120,000. Local municipalities might pitch in to help the cost.
The Okaloosa County School District plans to have a special election May 15 for its own half-cent sales tax, mail-in ballot referendum. If it’s approved by a simple majority of voters, that 10-year tax would take effect Jan. 1, 2019, and could generate at least $15 million per year.
Revenue would be spent on new buses, capital improvement projects at schools throughout the district, and possibly a high school in Destin.
The cost of the school district’s special election also is estimated to run $110,000 to $120,000. A political action committee called Team Okaloosa reportedly will raise the money to pay that cost.