BAKER — In an effort to discuss dirt roads, an Okaloosa County commissioner hosted a town hall meeting where the discussion shifted from paving to the county's half cent sales tax.
Commissioner Nathan Boyles, whose district and home is in the north of the county, hosted the meeting Tuesday at Camp Retreat, where about 30 people attended.
A few residents at the meeting said they would like to see their county roads better maintained, but Boyles placed the blame largely on a lack of funds.
One resident said he believed the money from the half-cent sales tax that is going toward a new Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office shooting range in Holt could be used for north county road projects.
The surtax was on Okaloosa County ballots last November and was approved by more than 62 percent of registered voters in the 52 voting precincts. The sales tax was increased from 6 percent to 6.5 percent, or 65 cents per a $10 purchase.
Boyles said the sales taxed passed because of south end support. He added that having Sheriff Larry Ashley as a "vocal advocate" played a big role in getting the sales tax passed.
"So what you're saying is it's political," the man said.
"Do you want an honest answer?," Boyles replied. "Absolutely, it was political. ... If I got that and was able to get some dollars to spend on roads up here in the north end, I'll take that as the cost at the end of the day."
Boyles said this "cost" was compromise, which was necessary for the sales tax to pass.
"I would have been perfectly happy if the half-penny sales tax was dedicated 100 percent to roads," Boyles said. "I frankly don't believe that would have passed with majority support of the voters."
Ashley said the funding from the half-cent sales tax was necessary for the department to address public safety issues.
"Commissioner Boyles has a one-track mind when it comes to roads," Ashley said. "We have over 6,000 traffic crashes in our county every year. That is almost 18 a day. Commissioner Boyles doesn't have to answer all those calls of service.
"All I can say is, everybody's got their priorities. I think they're all priorities. Public safety, I believe, is the main priority. If we're not safe, none of the rest of it really matters."
He added that the Sheriff's Office faces manpower issues and training and communications are necessary for the agency to function.
"I think quality of life is the No. 1 reason we want public safety to be adequately funded to deal with crime issues," Ashley said.
The process that defined where the surtax funds are allocated was discussed many months before the election.
County Administrator Jon Hofstad said the use of funding was required to be defined in the referendum that appeared on the ballot based on Florida statutes.
"What we said when we put all this together a year or so ago is we had needs on transportation and roadside, storm-water infrastructure has needs, and the other side was public safety," Hofstad said. "We identified really three core areas that we had needs in."
Hofstad said project ideas were presented to a separate sales tax committee, which answered to and was created by the Okaloosa County Board of Commissioners. Ultimate and final approval of the projects came down to the county commissioners.
To date, Hofstad said they have approved one public safety project and eight separate storm water and road projects. The total is over $5.6 million.
Hofstad added that additional projects and ideas will continue to come forward in the following months and years.
"We certainly have more need than we have revenue," Hofstad said.
For Boyles, this need is better road maintenance.
"Everybody has there different view of what is a priority, and if you don't live on a dirt road or if you do not have to travel 98 or 85 on a daily basis, then transportation may simply not be your priority," Boyles said.
Boyles spoke at the town hall about programs he has worked on as county commissioner.
One program Boyles spoke about was the Matrix, a system the county uses to rank dirt roads to become paved roads.
"When I became a commissioner, we really could not point to a defensible process for ranking dirt roads that were within the county maintenance system would qualify to rise to the top of the list to be paved," Boyles said in an earlier interview. "I pushed us toward a more transparent process, and the result was the Matrix."
At the meeting, the Matrix, which is a publicly available spreadsheet, was displayed on one of the boards. Through the Matrix, the county ranks dirt roads by using a set criteria to assign scores to each road. The scores allow the county to rank the roads, and funds are focused on the top four roads, which based on their score are considered highest priority.
Boyles said residents can express concerns if they feel their road is not properly ranked.
Boyles has also worked on a "self-help program" in which communities that wish to see their county unmaintained roads become maintained can apply through a process called the Municipal Service Benefit Unit program.
The roads must meet a certain criteria, and the residents are required to pay an established amount over time.
Okaloosa currently maintains 185 miles of dirt roads, according to the county's website.