Sales tax workshop proposed for April 11

Posted on February 24, 2016 by Louis Cooper

The Santa Rosa County Commission wants to hear what taxpayers think about funding a new judicial facility that could cost nearly $50 million with a sales tax increase.

Commissioners will conduct a public workshop on April 11 at 6 p.m. to discuss a Local Option Sales Tax – or LOST – to fund the courthouse and other capital projects.

On Monday, commissioners heard an update from consultant HOK on the feasibility of building a new judicial facility in downtown Milton where the current courthouse is.

To keep costs down, HOK is planning a 135,000 square foot building that would meet current demands for the facility but not afford room for future growth.

That would be considerably bigger than the current courthouse, which is 45,000 square feet. The current building doesn’t include offices intended for the new facility, like the state attorney’s and public defender’s offices.

HOK presented two options for the courthouse based on wetlands near the downtown site. A plan that would not impact those wetlands would cost about $46.6 million and include 300 parking spaces. An option that would minimally impact those wetlands would cost about $47 million but include 395 parking spaces.

Sharon Glass, a Pace resident, voiced support for the plan that would have no impact on wetlands. However, she is concerned about the notion of a 10-year, 1 percent sales tax to fund it.

“The biggest thing is the 10 years,” Glass said. “You’ve got to come to a compromise of some sort. … Five years rather than 10 years, and you might get somewhere. I’m not going to promise. People are taxed to death as it is.”

Milton resident Jerry Couey agreed.

“It’s not about what you want. It’s about what you can convince the taxpayers to pay for,” Couey said.  “You’re building too big of a courthouse. You’re not going to get it by the taxpayers.”

In 2014, a plurality of Santa Rosa voters – about 33 percent – said they would rather build a new judicial facility in downtown Milton as opposed to sites in East Milton or Pea Ridge. In that same referendum, voters rejected a sales tax increase to fund building a new facility.

However, debate Monday continued around the location of a new facility. Commissioner Bob Cole is concerned about the $2.5 million in additional site costs to build downtown as opposed to other locations.

“How do we, honestly, go to the citizens knowing we’ve got $2.5 million facing us – possibly more – saying we’re willing to spend this much more money downtown instead of using a more viable piece, and, oh, by the way, we’d like to have a 1 cent sales tax to pay for it,” Cole said. “How do we tell the people on the beach we’d like you to renourish the beach, and spend $2.5 million more on a courthouse?”

Commissioner Jayer Williamson, however, said he thinks the cost would actually be about the same regardless of location.

“The site development (at other locations) would be more than what we have right here. That’s the way we were last time,” Williamson said. “If site development were a million more – every site is going to be different – and then we had to spend a million and a half to get the property, right there is your two and a half million. The money is going to be spent somewhere.”

Two elected officials who happen to be at Monday’s meeting who would have business in the new facility expressed concern about the downtown location.

Clerk of Court Don Spencer is concerned about the impact of nearby train tracks on court proceedings.

“My main concern is when we are having court … the lady in another room being able to record everything properly,” Spencer said. “Right now, we have to stop court when the train goes by, and we’re three or four blocks from the train tracks. I see that as being a big issue.”

Sheriff Wendell Hall pointed out that the downtown location is pinned in on three sides by the Blackwater River, U.S. 90 and the railroad tracks.

“I hope we don’t make a decision that is going to cause future generation problems,” Hall said. “We’re growing very fast. What’s good for 15 or 20 years may work … but we need to have room to grow. What’s 40 or 50 years going to look like? At least, don’t block us in. (In downtown) where are we going to grow?”

Jayer Williamson said he believes the future will see judicial capacity spread to other areas of the county – like the south end and Pace – rather than need to be added at the main facility in Milton.