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A half-cent sales tax proposal aims to fix Hernando's transportation and recreation woes

Animals on a grass field while children are in the back kicking soccer balls
Hernando County
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Courtesy
The soccer field at Ernie Wever Youth Park in Brooksville had a pair of unexpected visitors during a youth soccer match.

The majority of the half-cent tax would be spent on improving transportation infrastructure in the county, with the rest going to expand and maintain parks and recreation areas.

Hernando County residents will vote on a half-cent sales tax referendum during the No. 8 general election.

If passed, the majority of the tax would be spent on improving transportation infrastructure in the county, while the remainder would go toward expanding and maintaining parks and recreation areas.

The tax would generate over $130 million over the next 10 years, according to county officials.

VOTER GUIDE: Key dates, how to vote, and what you need to know ahead of Florida's elections

County Administrator Jeff Rogers says expanding roads is needed as the new housing developments and businesses are coming to the area.

"Or are we just going to be really backed-up in traffic, and end up like in Tampa, having to sit at a traffic light for two turns sometimes,” Rogers said. “We're kind of trying to prevent that as much as we can in Hernando County."

Rogers said the county has seen a decrease in the revenue generated from gas tax over the past few years, partially due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also because cars are becoming more fuel-efficient.

That makes it hard to tackle all of the road projects that the county needs to keep up with population growth.

“To put up traffic poles and signs, it’s a million dollars,” Rogers said. “I get $11.5 million dollars per year, and it’s going down every year. So I really can only do maybe one signal a year.”

road signs next to an intersection
Courtesy of Hillsborough County
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County officials say the average resident will pay $70 to 100 dollars per year due to the tax.

The tax would also help grab larger pots of federal money, according to Hernando County officials.

“There are grant dollars available, but you have to have matching funds,” said Hernando County Commissioner John Allocco. “I joke about it — everybody’s a beggar, but very few people want to actually put skin in the game.”

Earlier this year, the county was rejected from receiving federal money from President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill, which officials said they wanted to use to expand the county line road shared between Pasco and Hernando counties.

If the tax were in place, they say the chances of ramping up large-scale projects would increase.

“We're talking well over $200 million worth of road expansion projects here,” Allocco said. “And again, as [the county commission] talked about these, we felt that the best option was to first go to the community and see if they would like to fund it this way so that we could have matching dollars and maybe take that $200 million or $250 million, and cut it down to about a third of it on the backs of Hernando County residents or homeowners, and that's basically what we came up with.”

But others, like Ash Marwah, a Hernando County resident running for a Florida House seat as a Democrat, believes the tax will be a burden.

"The tax is unfair on, especially on people of modest income, because these are the people who spend all their money on food, clothing and shelter,” Marwah said. “They end up bearing the largest burden of the sales tax increase.”

County officials say the average resident will pay $70 to $100 per year due to the tax.

Instead, Marwah said, the county should look for other ways to slim down their budget, which he said has been made more expensive by the slew of new state laws introduced over the past couple of years.

“These election laws are implemented by the counties, not by the state,” Marwah said. “So the counties are spending the money, and they're hiring more people, which increases their costs. And that's what is wrong.”

The tax has received support from some local organizations, such as the Hernando County Builder’s Association and the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce.

“I'm not a big proponent of adding taxes, but I think you've got to look at doing it for the right reasons,” said chamber president Morris Porton. “And I think this was improving the value of your properties, the ease of the consumer. I think it makes all the sense in the world.”

Four Way intersection with a top-down view, with a few businesses on the corners
Hernando County
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Courtesy
Other areas of focus for road projects include Barclay Avenue, and the Northwest section of the county, called the Royal Highlands.

Meanwhile, the Hernando Classroom Teacher’s Association has declined to take a firm position on the tax.

The school district is aiming to renew a half cent tax that provides money for school infrastructure and expansion as the county continues to grow. That tax expires in 2025.

Earlier this year, the school district and county commission got into a legal fight over which referendum would be placed on this year’s ballot. Ultimately, the commission decided to table the school-related referendum, and instead place it on the 2024 ballot.

“I'm hearing from members all the time who are working at schools that are already overcrowded,” said Lisa Masserio, president of the association. “And we're not even a fraction of the way through those 11,000 homes that have been approved to be built in Hernando County. So it does seem like a missed opportunity to us.”

Masserio said she thinks there are issues of transportation infrastructure, as well as a need for more recreation space for youth, but that pushing the school referendum to the side because of those issues is putting the school district in a tough position.

“I'm not going to say the roads aren't important — they are,” Masserio said. “I will just say that I think that by delaying [the referendum], it definitely puts us behind in responding to the level of growth."

Eighty percent of the money gathered would go toward road improvements and expansions, while another 20% would focus on parks and recreation improvements.

Rogers said although its not a bulk of the tax, the 20% of the revenue generated to improve and create new recreational opportunities is important for the county’s growing youth population.

“We've outgrown our existing capacity of field use,” Rogers said. “We have soccer teams playing in a cow field right now.”

The lack of space has led to some difficult situations.

“About three weeks ago, we had two cows that got out of the field, and the cows were like in the middle of the field, and they had to stop playing while they were walking across the field, and they had to get the they had to get the cows off the field,” Rogers said. “So as a rural area becomes urbanized, it's kind of what happens as we grow in Florida, right?”

If the tax is approved, a Citizen’s Oversight Committee would be in charge of mulling over proposed projects, and giving approval for them to move forward.

The Clerk of the Court would also conduct a yearly audit to make sure the money gathered was appropriately spent.

As a host and reporter for WUSF, my goal is to unearth and highlight issues that wouldn’t be covered otherwise. If I truly connect with my audience as I relay to them the day’s most important stories and make them think about an issue past the point that I’ve said it in a newscast, that’s a success in my eyes.