Okaloosa County and its municipalities have many half-cent sales tax-funded projects in the works.
A mass notification system and other safety measures for local schools, the start of the huge southwest Crestview bypass project and a slew of road and stormwater upgrades throughout Okaloosa County are among the first of many initiatives that will be funded at least in part with money from the county’s local option half-cent sales tax.
RELATED: The WHEN and WHEREs of the Crestview Bypass
This calendar year marks the first full year of the 10-year tax. It took effect Jan. 1 after a majority of voters approved it in November 2018.
Since Florida already levied a 6-cents-on-the-dollar sales tax, Okaloosa’s half-penny sales tax, or surtax, increased the overall sales tax to 6.5%. That equals $0.65 per $10 purchase.
The half-cent sales tax applies to all transactions subject to the state tax imposed on sales, use, services, rentals, admissions and other authorized transactions. Anyone who buys goods in Okaloosa County pays the half-cent sales tax.
It’s estimated to generate about $19 million annually for public safety, transportation and stormwater system capital improvements and public-safety equipment purchases.
The bulk of the money goes to the county and the rest is divided among its nine municipalities, based on population.
In early 2018, the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce formed a not-for-profit corporation called Okaloosa Makes Cents Inc. in support of the surtax.
The half-penny tax approved by voters is “a game-changer for Okaloosa County because it’s the first time we’ve planned for the future,” chamber President/CEO Ted Corcoran said recently.
Here are descriptions of some of the initial, local big-ticket initiatives that are funded at least in part with money from the half-penny tax:
County officials anticipate receiving a total of $14 million in half-cent sales tax money this calendar year. Of that total, they are spending almost $1.85 million on school safety measures, including a radio-controlled, school district-wide mass notification system that will warn of threats such as a shooter on campus.
The system will be accessed via an app or computer and instantly push a notification to an entire campus via mobile devices, computer screens and loudspeakers.
The sheriff’s office is working with the system’s installer on final details but the timeline for the project hasn’t been determined yet, county spokesman Christopher Saul said recently.
The almost $200 million southwest Crestview bypass project represents the largest and most expensive sales-tax project countywide. The county is spending $2 million in half-penny tax revenue, as well as $25 million in surtax-backed bonds, on the bypass.
Money from the state, BP oil spill settlement and city of Crestview also will fund the project, which is expected to decrease traffic congestion in and near Crestview and boost the local economy.
The first three phases of the PJ Adams Parkway widening work, which is an almost $15 million segment of the bypass, began in September and could last for about 2.5 years.
A sign along the parkway states “Your voter approved local option surtax dollars at work!”
Triumph Gulf Coast Inc. is providing $64.1 million in BP oil spill settlement money for the overall bypass project, which will see the creation of about six miles of roadway. Triumph requires the county to have the construction portion of most of the bypass project under contract by the end of 2020. The bulk of the work could be completed by late 2025.
Major improvements to the sheriff’s office training facility by Crestview that are expected to start in the coming weeks could be completed in about 10 months.
For the facility, county officials have earmarked a little more than $3 million in half-cent sales tax money for firing range upgrades, construction of a two-story, 10,000-square-foot training center that will include space to train for active-shooter scenarios, and the purchase of 40 adjacent acres of land to buffer the site.
Another major project, this one using $870,000-worth of county surtax dollars, includes the installation of traffic signals and upgrades to turn lanes and intersection approaches at Commons Drive and Henderson Beach Drive by Destin. Construction is set to start in January.
Also, at least $622,000 in county surtax money will be used to replace stormwater pipes along 6th Street and 9th Avenue by Shalimar, with construction expected to begin this winter.
Before being approved by the County Commission, each of the county’s surtax projects was examined by the five-member county Infrastructure Surtax Advisory Committee, which has met regularly since January.
“During the past year of service, you have done an outstanding job of critiquing projects,” County Administrator John Hofstad said at the committee’s Dec. 4 meeting. “We’ve accomplished a lot for this county.”
(Information on all of the county’s half-cent sales tax projects is found at the website, http://gis.myokaloosa.com/salestax/storymap.html?appid=d24d666fb9a147a5a75aa63fb9d66aeb)
By the end of this year, Okaloosa County’s most populated municipality expects to receive a total of a little more than $1.8 million in half-cent sales tax money.
Most of that funding, and most of the city’s surtax dollars received in later years, will go to the bypass project.
To meet a Triumph Gulf Coast requirement, Crestview officials in January likely will borrow $8 million that will be given all at once for the project.
“We have to put the money up front before next June, according to a Triumph requirement,” Mayor J.B. Whitten said.
Surtax money will be used to pay off the debt.
The $8 million from Crestview will be spent on the project’s east-west connector north of Interstate 10. The city also is providing about 50 acres of land for the overall bypass project.
Voter approval of the local option half-cent sales tax meant local officials would have the money that could be leveraged with other types of funding, speeding up the entire process for completing the bypass, Whitten said.
I’m not saying it wouldn’t have happened, but it wouldn’t have happened at the speed it’s going to happen if we hadn’t gotten that half-cent sales tax increase,” he said.
Fort Walton Beach
Through Dec. 4, Fort Walton Beach had received about $1.5 million in surtax revenue.
In the first week of December, work began on a Yacht Club Drive resurfacing project that has the city paying about $155,000 in surtax money for its section of the street from Ferry Road to Nebraska Avenue.
The town of Cinco Bayou is paying about $64,000 for the resurfacing of its portion of Yacht Club Drive, from Nebraska Avenue to Eglin Parkway.
Fort Walton Beach officials also are using more than $530,000 in surtax money to pay for a fire pumper truck and more than $250,000 in half-cent sales tax funds for new public safety equipment, such as a drone, a shooting simulator and fitness training equipment.
As of Dec. 2, the city had received a little more than $900,000 in half-cent sales tax money.
City staff plans to schedule a post-Christmas workshop at which the city council will prioritize Destin’s half-cent sales tax project needs.
The city Public Works and Safety Committee has recommended using about $400,000 in surtax money on repairing/replacing damaged sidewalks, as well as on replacing or installing ADA-compliant detectable warning surfaces on sidewalk ramps at crosswalks. The warning surfaces help visually impaired and blind pedestrians.
In the past, the council has discussed using some surtax money to help pay for placing electrical lines underground and buying beach parcels to create more public beach.
City officials anticipate their 2019 calendar year total amount of surtax to be a little more than $1.3 million.
So far, the city has used some sales-tax money for numerous sidewalk upgrades and in the next month or so will prioritize its surtax-funded street-resurfacing projects, Niceville Public Works Director Bruce Price said.
“I would imagine we’ll prioritize our major streets first, then get into the residential streets,” Price said.
He said one of the city’s top road projects will be the rebuilding of the portion of Rocky Bayou Drive between Forest Road and State Road 20, a project that might cost about $1 million.