School security and eliminating septic systems topped the list of recommended priorities for a new sales tax surcharge, if Charlotte County approves one in November.
A citizen focus group completed their main task of prioritizing a list of 32 capital or construction projects on a $200 million wish list.
The 21-member group, appointed by county commissioners, has been meeting since August, hearing presentations on each project. Most of the projects are recommended by county staff, however the county school district requested $5 million for a new single-step, school alarm and lock down system.
Most decisions were made unanimously after some debate or with one or two dissenting votes.
The county has had a 1 cent sales tax surcharge since 1994, re-approved every six years by voters. Commissioners must decide soon whether to put a renewal of the soon-to-expire surcharge on the November ballot. Commissioners will make the final decisions on projects.
The recent economic boom years have been pulling in $24 million a year for projects under the current sales tax, but county staff advised the committee to use a conservative estimate of $20 million a year. The committee ordered 16 projects to fill in the first $120 million. The remaining 16 projects were ordered for the tier 2 list.
The focus group quickly moved to place $70 million of a type of sewer projects related to septic systems on the list before considering anything else.
“There is a huge push to improve water quality in Charlotte Harbor,” said Jared Bickham, the county’s capital projects manager.
These are the sewer expansions needed to reach neighborhoods that currently use septic systems, such as many of the barrier islands on the Gulf of Mexico. It won’t help individual septic owners pay to connect to the sewer system. Rather, it would help utility customers who would otherwise have to cover the cost of expanding the collection network.
After moving quickly through the first $12 million, some group members called for allocating percentages to categories. The group decided 6% to water quality, 20% to general facilities, 29% to roads, 25% to fire and sheriff projects, and 20% to quality of life which includes libraries and parks.
The group split some large projects between the high priority list and the lower priority list. That includes various bike paths, sewer system expansion, road projects, fire stations and sheriff stations.
Group members also worried that the list would not appeal to voters. They worked to include all sections of the county, which range from beach to farms to urban to rural. They prioritized requests from outside county government, including the school security system and also, a skate rink at Tringali Park.
They went against staff recommendation and prioritized the renovation of the old Punta Gorda Library for $500,000, even though staff said it was not worth renovating. Many non-profits and community groups have said they want to use that building, now that a new library is complete.