Half-cent sales tax gets office-seekers’ attention at forum

Candidates for various offices made another pitch for votes last week during the St. Lucie County Chamber’s candidate forum. Those vying for seats on the County Commission and in the State House and Senate were among participants.

County Commission District 2 candidates include governor-appointed Anthony Bonna, who has been serving on the dais for the last six months, and Democratic challenger Sean Mitchell. Commission District 4 is currently represented by two-term Commissioner Frannie Hutchinson, who faces Democratic challenger Helen Henderson.

““This is not a debate. There will not be a winner,” said moderator and Chamber president Terissa Aronson.

Instead, she explained, the event was an opportunity for candidates to introduce themselves and answer three questions.

Commission candidate questions concerned what they believe to be the county’s most pressing issue, expansion of utilities and trash collection, and the half-cent sales tax.

All four running for County Commission support the half-cent sales tax initiative. Voters will decide in November whether or not to raise the sales tax by a half-percent, making the sales tax rate 7 percent. The initiative would last 10 years and cannot be extended without another vote from residents.

“I’m an ambassador for it,” Bonna told the audience, even though he is the “anti-tax guy.” He said tourists would contribute an estimated 23 percent of the collected funds, helping to offset the citizens’ burden.

Mitchell also said he fully supports the ballot question, noting that – unlike the 2016 attempt – the various government bodies have done well to come up with a list of shovel-ready projects to be funded with the revenues. The sunset provision and citizen oversight committees helped persuade him to get on board.

Fellow Democrat challenger Henderson said the sales tax would help address issues without fully burdening taxpayers.

“I absolutely support it,” she said, adding that all residents would benefit.

Hutchinson noted that she has been supportive of asking the voters to decide the matter. She also pointed out that the half-cent sales tax increase would be in effect for 10 years, could be used only for vetted projects, and each municipality would have a website that residents can consult to monitor the numerous projects’ progress.

Each of the four County Commission candidates agreed that the environment and jobs were two top priorities.

Henderson told the audience that all the various issues facing the county are interconnected. “As an educator, I stress the big picture (to students).” She said the county needs to work collaboratively with others to achieve the best outcomes.

“Every issue is pressing,” Hutchinson said. For her, fiscal responsibility is the top priority: ensuring the county’s ability to provide services without burdening the citizenry.

Bonna agreed with his challenger that providing a skilled workforce and job opportunities for that workforce are important matters. He said St. Lucie County has striven to become business-friendly.

Other candidates who attended and participated in the candidate forum included Nicole Haagenson, for State House Dist. 54 opposing incumbent Erin Grall, who did not attend; and Delores Hogan Johnson, for State House Dist. 84 opposing candidate Mark Gotz, who did not attend.

Gayle Harrell and Dr. Robert Levy, for State Sen. Dist. 25, and Toby Overdorf and Matt Theobald, for State House Dist. 83, also participated.

In the cases of Haagenson and Johnson, the candidates were given time to introduce themselves. No questions were posed to them since their counterparts were not in attendance to also weigh in.

Harrell and Levy, who are both seeking to election to the state senate, fielded questions centered around home rule – the ability of local governments to create their own laws separate from the state.

Both voiced support for home rule, though Harrell noted that there are times when state law should supersede. Harrell said issues that are of a statewide nature and need consistency should be left to the state.

They were asked specifically if local governments should be allowed to craft their own rules regarding short-term rentals. And, while both said they support local decision-making, Harrell said the state would want to ensure certain standards are maintained for public health and safety.

“We don’t want crooks and criminals ripping off homeowners,” she said.

Overdorf and Theobald were asked about the state’s impact on local budgets and what they see as the most pressing of matters in the region.

Both believe Florida has undermined local governments’ abilities to fund their own budgets given unfunded state mandates. Theobald said home rule should allow municipalities to determine their own financing structure and taxes to make ends meet. Mandates from the state make that a difficulty. “It’s unfortunate it has to be that way,” he said.

Overdorf touted his biology background when asked what the biggest challenge is for the area. Both he and Theobald agreed the answer was the river’s health, or lack thereof.

“We have a loud voice here in Martin and St. Lucie County,” Overdorf said. “We need to finish the job” – get the nutrients out of the water and send the water south.

Voters will decide these races and numerous ballot amendments on Nov. 6.

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