Brevard County voters will get to decide in November whether to approve a special half-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax to help pay for cleanup of the Indian River Lagoon.
After six hours of presentations, public comment and debate, county commissioners on Tuesday voted unanimously to approve a $302.9 million, 10-year plan to restore the lagoon within Brevard County. They also unanimously voted in favor of asking voters to consider the sales tax as a way to pay for the lagoon projects.
A final vote to authorize putting the sales tax measure on the ballot will come after a required public hearing scheduled for Aug. 23.
"Let's move forward, and all work together and fix this lagoon," County Commission Chairman Jim Barfield said just after the series of five unanimous votes to set the plan in motion. "We will save the lagoon."
The "Save Our Lagoon Project Plan" proposes a series of measures over the next 10 years, including muck removal, stormwater projects, upgrades to wastewater treatment facilities, septic system removal and upgrades, fertilizer management, oyster reef projects and public education.
In recent years, the lagoon has experienced algae blooms, brown tide, fish kills, and unusual death rates for dolphins, manatees and pelicans. The plan estimates a $2.01 billion positive economic impact from restoration of the lagoon and $4.29 billion in damages if the lagoon is not brought back to health during the next decade. The report focused on three areas of economic impact: tourism and recreation, property values and commercial fishing.
More than 250 people, many wearing blue shirts that read "Love Our Lagoon," packed the commission chambers. More than 50 people spoke during public comment on the issue, with most of them supporting the lagoon plan devised by the Brevard County Natural Resources Management Department Director Virginia Barker, her staff and outside consultants.
Speakers had differing opinions on how to pay for the work. Some favored the sales tax proposal. Others wanted the county to consider a special property tax instead. And still others said more money should come from Florida's Water and Land Conservation Initiative, commonly known as Amendment 1, or from the federal government. Commissioners opted for the sales tax approach. The proposed half-percent tax would generate $34 million a year for 10 years, or a total of $340 million.
Some of the commissioners indicated that they favored that approach because it would spread the funding to all county residents, as well as visitors to Brevard County — and not just people who own property in Brevard.
"I don't think the property owners alone should be shouldering the burden of this funding," County Commission Vice Chair Curt Smith said.
Additionally, collection of the tax — if approved by voters — could start as early as February 2017, whereas a new property tax could not be collected until after the start of the 2017-18 budget year on Oct. 1, 2017.
Smith said he believes the lagoon sales tax also could generate $300 million or more from the state and federal governments in matching funds.
"It shows the state and the feds that we mean business," Smith said. "We can do an awful lot. And in the hands of Virginia Barker and her staff, they can put these plans together … and we can really, really make a big dent in this thing in the next 10 years, and have sustainable monies going forward."
Commissioner Trudie Infantini surprised some of the people attending the meeting when she voted with the other commissioners in favor of moving forward with letting voters consider the sales tax. In her tenure as a commissioner, she has cast a number of votes against new taxes and fees.
"While I philosophically disagree" with the sales tax, Infantini told those in the audience, "you all came out and spoke, and you took your time, and I'm actually going to agree, and vote for it. It's not something I personally agree with, but you said what you wanted, and I'll put it back out to the voters."
Upon hearing Infantini's remarks, County Commissioner Robin Fisher implied that Infantini may have been supporting the measure because she is in the homestretch of her Republican primary election campaign, in seeking to unseat incumbent Clerk of Courts Scott Ellis.
"It looks like we're going to get a 5-0. It's election time," Fisher said. "You better get it before she changes her mind. It's election time. She might get another text that says: 'Don't do it' "
Infantini shook her head, but said nothing in response to Fisher.
Infantini also raised questions during the commission discussion about whether the sales tax could be used for lagoon muck removal. County Attorney Scott Knox said during and after the meeting that he is confident it can be used for that purpose.
Reflecting on the County Commission vote after the meeting, Smith said: "I think what we did was we created a milestone for restoring and maintaining the health of the Indian River Lagoon. We had an awful lot of people from the community show up and voice their support. And we came up with a great idea. And we're going to let the taxpayers and the voters in Brevard County decide whether they want to support the lagoon."
Barker said the plan includes creation of a special citizen oversight board to monitor the program and its impact on reducing pollution. The panel would have representatives from these sectors: scientists, technology entrepreneurs, economists, real estate, education, tourism and lagoon advocacy. The County Commission would nominate half of the members and the Space Coast League of Cities would nominate the other half.
As part of the process, the county also must get agreements with Brevard's cities and towns that money raised by the tax go to the county for its lagoon restoration programs, instead of being split with the municipalities. The agreements would have to include cities and towns representing more than half of Brevard's municipal population.
Fisher, in noting that the commission could not directly advocate for voter approval of the sales tax, urged supporters of the sales tax in the audience to form a political action committee or similar group to take on the role of promoting passage of the referendum.
"You've got to have an organized effort to get it passed because there will be some naysayers who say, 'Don't do it.' " Fisher said. "Somebody needs to get organized, and go fight for this thing."
Knox said that, while the county can provide the public with information on the proposed sales tax and the environmental problems related to the lagoon, "You can't be an advocate for the tax or for the referendum."