A special meeting between the Walton County Board of County Commissioners and Council members from the cities of DeFuniak Springs, Freeport and Paxton to discuss the feasibility and value of a one-cent discretionary sales tax for transportation infrastructure was held Tuesday evening at the DeFuniak Springs Community Center. Many in attendance referred to the meeting as “historic” since there has never been a meeting with all legislative officers to come together and work collaboratively for a common goal. The meeting agenda included Freeport City Manager Charlie Simmons; Walton County Chief Financial Officer Melissa Thomason; Walton County Traffic Operations Engineer Chance Powell; DeFuniak Springs Councilman Tony Vallee; and Attorney Clay Adkinson. Each member addressed the sales tax from their area of expertise. “Like many of you I have lived here all my life. Generations of my family have lived here 130 years. We know we lack roads and bridges. Our job is to bring solutions. We all need this,” said Freeport City Manager Charlie Simmons who opened the meeting.
Ms. Thomason reported that the sales tax will generate approximately $38,000,000 in revenue that will be shared equally among the county and cities. She detailed that about 70% would come from tourists through restaurants, short-term rentals and entertainment admission fees and stated it would not apply to sales of daily necessities like groceries, prescription medicine, and long-term rentals.
“We’ve kicked the can down the road so many times,” said Freeport City Councilman Eddie Farris. “We have the opportunity to come together as the cities, as the county to build the infrastructure that we need.” Many agreed the tax is a proactive solution to complete unfunded transportation projects and get in front of the upcoming residential and commercial developments coming to the area. The county and cities each have their respective lists of transportation projects that will be ranked and prioritized equitably. DeFuniak Springs Councilman (Mayor Pro-Tem) Todd Bierbaum said he was excited to partner with other elected officials in the county to address large scale transportation projects. “This is a historic meeting with all of us of being like-minded to bring solutions to the problem,” he said.
“Working together, now we can compete with Okaloosa County since our funding is based on population census numbers,” said DeFuniak Springs Councilman and Architect Tony Vallee. He shared that the Okaloosa Walton Transportation Planning Organization (TPO) is the vehicle to get money for roads and their mobility plan is a landmark document that has success for long range funding. Councilman Vallee introduced the concept of Complete Streets that are designed and operated to prioritize safety, comfort, and access to destinations for all, to include walkers, bikers, and those with disabilities. “Our quality of life has diminished by the infrastructure,” he said citing a youth church group walking home in the dark in the road for lack of a sidewalk. “We have to give our citizens options and opportunities to have safe routes. We need alternative routes to give residents options with enhancements to the community. How do we improve the quality of life the community needs and wants?”
Attorney Clay Adkinson noted the county has been conservative in tax increases compared to other jurisdictions. He suggested strategies to leverage municipal bonds to account for inflation. He also noted that more than 70% of the sales tax will be paid by non-residents of the county in tourism dollars. County commissioners elected a five-member committee to prioritize transportation projects throughout the county. The committee consists of Walton County District 5 Commissioner Tony Anderson; District 1 Commissioner William “Boots” McCormick; DeFuniak Springs Councilman-Seat 5 Tony Vallee; Freeport Councilman Mark Martin; and Paxton Council member Donna Smith.
“I am very pleased with the meeting and impressed how everyone agreed. This strengthens our unity as a county and with our surrounding cities. We want to be smart about our growth, learn lessons from other cities, and grow our relationships with the TPO, DOT, and the public,” said DeFuniak Springs Mayor Bob Campbell. County commissioners voted to place the tax referendum on the November 8 general election ballot.