City leaders to draft letter opposing local option gas tax hike

Matt Algarin

A majority of city leaders are against a proposal by the Okaloosa County Board of County Commissioners that could raise the local option gas tax in the county.

"Something will freeze over before I vote to add a single penny to the gas tax that the residents of this city pay three hundred and sixty five days a year, and the tourists pay once when they are here," Councilman Jim Bagby told his colleagues.

Cities and towns throughout Okaloosa County were requested by county commissioners to provide their thoughts on the possibility of raising the gas tax prior to any final decisions being made. After a 5-2 vote during Monday night's City Council meeting, city leaders will draft a letter to the county stating they are against a tax hike.

By raising the gas tax, the county would be able to generate the funding to address infrastructure needs, such as paving projects and road repairs throughout the county. In Florida, counties can levy up to a 12 cent tax on gasoline, which excludes diesel fuel. Okaloosa County currently levies a 7 cent tax.

Based on a proposal by County Commissioner Nathan Boyles, the county would implement, if approved, a 3 cent increase in the gas tax that would generate about $8.2 million for road projects in the next five years.

Boyles wrote on his Facebook page, where he regularly offers updates on issues, that the county has been "deferring the need to adequately maintain our existing infrastructure and we aren't even talking seriously about paying for the additional infrastructure needed to handle future growth."

"I don't have the answer yet but I am asking the question — how do you want to pay for the infrastructure that we all rely on to go to work, to school, to church"?

While he is not a fan of raising taxes, Councilman Jim Wood, who is the self-described "transportation guy" on the council, said the city should get some more information and consider the idea before sweeping it under the rug.

"I think that transportation infrastructure is critically important and too many people undervalue that importance," he said. "Whether this particular tax is the answer may not be so, but supporting an increase in gas tax because of what it does is not a bad answer."

Most of the projects the money would help fund are outside of Destin, including the paving of Fairchild Road in Crestview and rebuilding Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Fort Walton Beach.

Outside of Commissioner Boyles, the only other vocal support for the tax hike came from Commissioner Wayne Harris. Any change to the gas tax would require a "supermajority" vote by county officials, which means that at least four commissioners would have to vote yes.

Back in Destin, Councilman Wood and Councilwoman Sandy Trammell were the lone supporters of the proposed tax hike, or at least furthering the conversation about the matter.