Lake County residents huddled at the Tavares Civic Center Thursday night to debate the upcoming renewal of a 15 year penny sales tax.
Revenues from that tax are expected to generate $450 million dollars that would be split up between the county, it’s 14 cities, and the school board.
The four-person panel featured Lake County Commissioner Tim Sullivan, and School Board Member Bill Mathias — both arguing in favor of the tax — with Don Magruder, CEO of a lumber and supply company, and Vance Jochim, a former certified executive auditor and watchdog blogger, in opposition.
Advocates kicked off the debate with opening statements stressing the need for another tax for the county to meet infrastructure needs, telling attendees it was the only way of funding schools outside of impact fees.
“If you believe that economic development depends on an educated workforce, you cannot vote against this tax” Mathias said.
Opponents offered serious concerns, including costs and transparency. Issues ranged from an estimated $400,000 cost of a November special election, with a regular election only four months later, to the lack of guidelines involved in ensuring revenues brought in from the tax were indeed used for the county’s infrastructure needs.
“If we do not force the politicians to limit where this money is utilized, in a couple of years there going to come back looking for another 13.8% increase in taxes” Magruder said, referring to a property tax hike passed by the commission last year.
Sullivan and Mathias warned that if the tax didn’t pass, the county would lose emergency vehicles and capital projects would be halted. Municipalities would be forced to raise taxes to cover the shortfall anyway.
Magruder argued that the county’s debt was caused from earlier mismanagement of tax revenue, with too much allocated for parks, as well as other expenses, and not enough for roads. There was also questions over the legality of the vague language, suggesting the measure be reviewed by Attorney General Pam Bondi‘s office.
Most of the audience Q/A was focused towards advocates for the tax with further challenges over the timing and costs of the special election, as well as questions over previous expenditures from the tax.
A few humorous moments punctuated the tense dialog, aimed mostly at County Commissioner Jimmy Conner, who was not in attendance. Connor was the target of multiple negative comments from both sides.
Yet, the most audible laughter during the debate occurred when Magruder asked: “Tim Sullivan, if you had $300 million dollars, would you trust Jimmy Connor?”
“Based on my vote against the millage rate,” Sullivan responded, “of course not.”
There are at least two more forums scheduled in the coming months, ahead of the November special election to decide the fate of the tax.