The Lee County School Board members voted to hold a special election in May on a proposed half-cent sales tax during their meeting Tuesday.
The proposed May 15 vote would be held as a special election which will cost the district $887,500 to conduct. The sales tax would be used to fill a gap in funding for construction of new schools and upgrades on current facilities.
If approved by voters, the ten-year tax would be in place from January 1, 2019 until December 31, 2028, with an automatic sunset clause. The tax, which would raise the sales tax in Lee County from 6 to 6.5 percent, is expected to raise around $55 million per year for the district.
The board heard from a large number of citizens opposed to the move during the public comment section of the meeting. While some speakers opposed the tax outright, many, like Gary Treichler, took issue specifically with holding a special election instead of placing the item on the August primary or November general election ballot.
“A special election is a sly and dishonest way to obtain their support. It’s an attempt to exploit uninformed, apathetic or snowbird voters,” Treichler said.
Ryan Kennedy told board members that he supported the citizen’s right to vote on a tax increase, but that the money the district would be forced to pay to hold a special election would be better spent elsewhere.
“I urge the board not to use the nearly $1 million on the special election, but rather use it on the things that will help each and every child in this county,” said Kennedy.
But not all speakers opposed the measure. Supporters say a special election allows the issue to get sole attention from voters, rather than getting “lost” among longer August or November ballots. Several ballot measures are expected to go to Florida voters in the fall, including from the Florida Constitution Revision Commission, which meets every 20 years to propose new statutes for voter referendum.
A number of citizens spoke in favor of the referendum, saying that the district was not receiving sufficient funding from the state and had to find new sources of income to keep up with growth in the area.
“You cannot depend on your local state delegation, the governor of Florida, or the legislature of Florida to help you meet those needs. They have demonstrated their lack of interest in helping you, and you have to help yourselves,” said Lee County resident WIlliam Tubb.
Board Member Chris Patricca expressed frustration with the ability of the district to engage the public on the issue of capital shortfalls, pointing to poor attendance at events like town halls meant to educate residents on the problem. She said that the public only really started to pay attention to the issue once the word tax was involved.
“We are out there, we are trying to get the word out,” said Patricca. “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.”
Board Chair Cathleen Morgan also suggested that a lack of information on the nature of the district’s financial situation had led to many of the objections voiced during the meeting.
“I’m a little disheartened to hear disinformation and the lack of information,” Morgan said. “We know we need to educate you.”
The board eventually passed the special election referendum with a vote of 6-1 with Board Member Melisa Giovannelli dissenting.
The decision may run the district afoul of the Lee County Commission, who have said they would like to see the item appear on a traditional election ballot. The commission would still need to approve the district’s request.
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