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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Discussing The Proposed Polk County Half-Cent Sales Tax For Roads & Transportation – “The road is no longer less traveled, so let’s let the voters decide”

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By Donna Fellows-Coffey, Publisher, Four Corners Sun Oct 23, 2023

This is a collaboration publishing or an article by the Polk Sun News & Daily Ridge in a joint effort to bring more news to Polk County residents

*The Views and opinions expressed by the author does not necessarily reflect those of the Daily Ridge or its staff

Four Corners Sun Publisher Donna Fellows-Coffey

As many of our readers already know, in addition to my role as publisher for the Four Corners Sun, I also proudly serve my community as a Davenport City Commissioner.

This is my first term as a commissioner, having only been an elected official since April. However, during that time, the same two issues keep being brought to my attention – traffic congestion and neighborhood speeding. What do those two things have in common? Roads and growth.

So, when Polk County Commissioner George Lindsey asked to speak at a recent city commission meeting about the proposed half-cent sales tax effort for roads that he is proposing, I knew that I owed it to my neighbors to listen carefully to his presentation.

Lindsey has spent the past several months making similar presentations to city officials throughout Polk County. Whether you agree with the proposal or not, he deserves an A for effort in getting his message out amongst the decision-makers of the county’s 17 municipalities.

Celebrated poet Robert Frost infamously penned, “I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

As a youngster growing up in Northeast Polk County, roads less traveled by existed. Forty-plus years later, that is no longer the case. There are no longer any roads less traveled. Even our dirt roads and alley ways sometimes fall victim to the congestion.

The fact of the matter is that Polk County is one of the fastest growing counties in the entire nation. Moreover, portions of the county, especially in the northeast region, are ranked among the fastest growing cities in the United States.

And no one realistically expects the growth explosion to stop anytime soon. Projections estimate the Polk County population to reach 1.2 million people by 2044.

While there are certainly exceptions with our more recently constructed roadways, the simple reality is that most of our roads were not built with the expectation of the volumes they currently undertake.

To paraphrase what Commissioner Lindsey keeps all but shouting from the rooftops – if you have a better proposal, I’m all ears, but doing nothing is simply not an option.

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with the proposal, here’s the highlights –

The tax would be limited to 20 years. If approved, it would go into effect on January 1, 2025, and would sunset on December 31, 2044.

The initiative would bring the county’s sales tax rate to 7.5%. Currently 21 of Florida’s 67 counties have a 7.5% sales tax rate.

Over the 20-year span, the initiative would generate more than $2 billion in additional revenue, which would be placed in a trust. Of that amount, 72%, or roughly $1.5 billion, would go to county projects, while 28%, or roughly $581,000, would go to city projects.

Under the current proposal, Lakeland would receive nearly 38% of the city funding, followed by Winter Haven at 15.88%, Haines City at 8.13%, Bartow at 7.95%, Lake Wales at 6.28%, Auburndale at 5.86%, Mulberry at 3.01%, Fort Meade at 2.6%, Davenport at 2.36%, Lake Alfred at 2.31%, Frostproof at 2.29%, Dundee at 1.98%, Polk City at 1.24% and Eagle Lake at 1.14%. The remaining municipalities would each receive less than 1%. (Side note, I’m not sure I agree with this particular allocation model – I think it’s a bit outdated and not reflective of where the current growth, congestion and needs are – but that’s another column for another day.)

The tax surcharge would be used to construct new roadways, as well as to fix and maintain existing roads. The funds would also be used to expand some public transportation services.

Admittedly, I’m probably a bit biased.

Professionally, I spent more than two decades in logistics. I saw firsthand how crucial our roadways are for commercial commerce.

Indulge me for a moment – I’m going to take a quick journalistic detour.

I was born at Winter Haven Hospital. At three days old, my parents brought me home to our home in Davenport, where I lived until my early 20s when I moved to an apartment in Haines City. From there, I moved to Winter Haven, where I lived for about five years until I moved back to Davenport. I say all of that to say this —

In less than a month, I will turn 47 years old. And I have NEVER not lived in Polk County.

So believe me when I tell you that I know what Polk County used to be. I’ve watched the evolution of our wonderful county for nearly half a century.

I actually think that growth is a good thing. I loved the Polk County of my childhood, but I love the Polk County of today even more. I can’t imagine ever living anywhere else, but if I ever do leave, there’s no doubt in my mind that my heart will always be in Polk County.

Y’all, I’m going to be perfectly blunt in typical Polk County girl style – We live where everyone else vacations. Why can we fault others for wanting to do the same?

Polk County was a hidden gem, a local secret, for many years. But the secret is out now, and like it or not, we have to share its glory with others. This may not be a popular sentiment, but we have to welcome the outsiders and help them acclimate to our culture and become one of us.

Okay then, so back to the topic at hand –

The math is actually surprisingly simple. More people equals more cars. More cars overwhelm our outdated roads.

We can complain, or we can do something about it.

Up until now, we haven’t kept up with the growth. Since we haven’t been proactive, we have no choice but to be reactive, and to hopefully learn from our mistakes and take a more proactive approach to our roadways going forward.

Not to mention, by using a sales tax approach to help fund our roadways, as opposed to a different taxing option, we are sharing the burden with those who don’t live here. Let’s take advantage of the tourism base at our fingertips. Everyday, vacationers travel our roads, eat at our restaurants, shop in our stores and visit our parks. Simply put, they come here and spend their money. The sales tax allows them to temporarily help pay for the roads that they temporarily use while they’re here.

Soon, in the coming weeks in fact, Lindsey and his fellow county commissioners will decide whether or not to allow the half-cent sales tax for roads initiative to be placed on the November 2024 ballot.

Residents will be among those driving the roads. Residents will be among those paying the increased tax amount. So the residents should be the ones making the decision.

Polk County Commission – I urge you to allow the half-cent sales tax to be placed on the ballot and put the decision in the hands of the people, for better or worse, who will be affected most. Let’s let the voters decide.

What do you think about the sales tax proposal? Have thoughts about our roads? I want to hear from you. Email me at [email protected].

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