County Commissioner George Lindsey isn’t often seen at Lakeland City Commission meetings, let alone with his proverbial hat in his hand, asking for support to raise taxes.
But the Republican lawmaker is currently on a tour of Polk County’s 17 municipalities, asking each one to throw their backing behind a half-cent sales tax initiative that he is spearheading to fix, maintain and build new roadways, along with adding some public transportation services, in one of the fastest growing counties in the United States.
The tax would be placed on consumer goods for 20 years and would raise an estimated $2.076 billion for the county, with its municipalities splitting 28% of that. Lakeland would reap an estimated $219.6 million — the most of any of the cities in Polk County — with Winter Haven following at $92.3 million.
The funds would be collected and placed in a trust, to be spent on specific projects. Unlike a bond, there would be no interest to pay back because it wouldn’t be a loan. With the county and cities pitching in, it would make it easier to apply for matching state and federal dollars.
“We are literally standing at the water’s edge, staring at a tsunami headed our way,” Lindsey told Lakeland city commissioners on Friday as he pleaded his case. “Whether we do this or not, Polk County’s population in 2044 will approach 1.2 million people.”
He added that Polk County Public Schools is projected to add another 85,000 students in the next 20 years, to bring up the total to 200,000, with 900 buses taking them to and from school each day on county roadways. There will be 200 calls for service per day for fire and ambulance services and 500 per day per city or county law enforcement. The jail population, he said, is expected to double.
“I strongly believe it’s our collective responsibility to meet this obligation, not only for today and tomorrow, but the next generation and the generation following,” Lindsey said. “If not us, who? If not now, when? The most important question becomes, ‘If not this, then what?’ Give me an alternative, give me a better idea. Doing nothing is not an option.”
Lindsey pointed out statistics recently released from the county’s Transportation Planning Organization that showed between city, county and state roads in Polk, there were 34 miles of D or F graded roads last year. If there is no significant change, in 10 years that will grow to 93 miles and in 20 years, more than 300 miles will be failing.
This isn’t the first time in recent memory that county leaders have sought a sales tax for transportation. In 2014, Polk County voters rejected a 1-cent “My Road, My Ride” proposal by a whopping 72% to 28%.
But Lindsey thinks this plan, which is half as much and limited to 20 years, will be more palatable.
Lindsey called the 2014 plan — which would have primarily funded public transportation — “honest and sincere, but short sighted and naïve,” with a message that boiled down to “simply trust me. Send us your money and we’ll do good things.”
He also illustrated how modest the impact of the half-cent sales tax would be for people buying items in Polk County.
“A large iced coffee at Dunkin Donuts will cost two cents more. A grilled chicken sandwich at Wendy’s will cost four cents more,” Lindsey said. “Obviously, that’s gonna have a heavier burden on some than others.”
For consumers buying a $25,000 car or boat, only the first $5,000 is taxed and so $25 would be added to the final bill.
A new, $1,500 Whirlpool refrigerator would cost $7.50 more, and a large Papa John’s pepperoni pizza would cost 9 cents more.
Lakeland already has a wish list for roads:
- Kathleen Road Extension – Duff Road to U.S. 98 for $100 million
- Marcum Road Extension from U.S. 98 to Green Road for $11.5 million
- Deen Still Road Realignment from U.S. 98 to U.S. 27 for $75 million
- West Pipkin Road five-laning from Harden Boulevard to South Florida Avenue for $6 million (underway)
- Ewell Road from Lunn Road to South Florida Avenue for $80 million
- Wabash Avenue from Ariana Street to U.S. 92 for $4.1 million
- Galloway Road from 10th Street W to CR 35A and from U.S. 92 to 10th Street W for $66 million
- Spirit Lake Road from Recker Highway to U.S. 92 for $78 million
City commissioners listened attentively, asking questions about funding, taxes and transportation.
Bill Read, one of the most fiscally conservative of the seven-member panel who is often the lone “no” vote on proposed projects, said he had hoped the tax might actually be higher.
“The traffic we have today is the best you’re ever going to get,” Read said. “I would highly endorse this project. I would like to see another little bit more money put to it, but a half cent would get us part of the way there. But I’d like to have had a penny or three quarters of a penny or something like that, but I leave it up to my fellow commissioners and the masses to decide from other city participants in the county.”
Commissioner Stephanie Madden told Lindsey that she appreciated him working to find a solution.
“We live in the free state of Florida, with no income tax, but then they wonder why we don’t have transit or anything — because we don’t have the taxes to pay for those things as we urbanize,” Madden said. She pointed to visitors and local trucking companies’ fleets wearing down existing roads, but not contributing financially. “But does this kind of alleviate a pinch point so that there’s no pressure on getting another funding source, either from the federal government or from the state to address these costs as well?”
Lindsey said if there were an alternative, he would be pursuing it.
“To rely on the state or the feds for continuing a reliable, sustainable contribution of the magnitude that this would produce over 20 years is unrealistic,” Lindsey said. “Every administration has its own priorities and its own focus and in dealing with … whatever the news or the issues are of the day. Two billion dollars over 20 years — I know of no other source that would produce that kind of money over a 20-year period on a sustainable basis.”
Lindsey said that he has been told by some major players in the county that they should operate within their means, but he pointed out that certain funding comes with certain strings attached, forcing them to spend it in a way prescribed by law.
“When public safety takes 70% of your ad valorem, there’s not much means left to do much of anything else,” he said, adding that public safety — fire, ambulances and law enforcement — eat up a lot of their budget.
Commissioner Mike Musick said regardless of what you call it or if it comes from the local, state or federal level, it is still taxpayers’ money and they should have a say.
“I mean, until, you know, the government itself is out there selling popsicles that everybody’s buying, you know, they’re taking the money from us,” Musick said. “So not only do we need to be diligent to make sure that they’re taking as little as they can, to being as effective and efficient as they can with those winnings that we’re taking, but also when we’re behind the eight ball like this, how do we look and say, ‘Okay, citizens, this is what this is, what we’re up against, because you’re all driving it every day. You know, how do we do that and still give them the option to say yea or nay?”
Lindsey is hoping to get the measure on the Nov. 5, 2024, ballot. If passed, it would make Polk the 22nd county in Florida with a 7.5% sales tax. The law would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2025 and would sunset on Dec. 31, 2044.
To drive home the point, Lindsey handed each city commissioner, staffer and reporters in the room a white 3×5 index card and told them, “This is all it takes.”
Taped to the front was a penny cut in half.
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