Extension of penny sales tax program wins approval of almost 78% of voters

Funds pay for projects planned by Sarasota County, School board and municipalities

In 2021, Sarasota County administrative staff proposed that the County Commission go ahead and conduct a 2022 referendum on extending the county’s penny sales tax — or “Surtax” — program for another 15 years.

Even though the Surtax III Program is not due to expire until Dec. 31, 2024, Deputy County Administrator and Chief Financial Management Officer Steve Botelho pointed out that if voters casting ballots during the Nov. 8 General Election declined to allow the program to continue, the county would have one more chance — the 2024 Presidential Election — to try to get the extension passed.

As the unofficial election results show, county leaders need not have worried about the Surtax Program’s future: Of the 201,892 votes cast on that question, 157,315 — or 77.92% — were “Yeses.”

Moreover, 69.19% of 194,768 voters approved a related question, which asked voters to allow the county to issue bonds early for initiatives that will be paid for with penny sales tax revenue through 2039.

Commissioners and staff emphasized that the issuance of the bonds should enable the county to reduce its inflation risk and speed up the completion of projects. The bonds, which would mature by Dec. 31, 2039 — when Surtax IV ends — would not exceed $400 million, as the ballot question noted.

In response for a request for comment about the votes, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis released this statement on Nov. 10: “A community is made up of its people, and as a community we have certain needs, such as roads, water quality, parks, and public safety. Given the overwhelmingly affirmative vote on surtax, the voters in Sarasota County have agreed on how critical these things are to investing in our community.”

As the county website explains, “The 1% sales surtax, on top of the 6% state sales tax, will fund investments in capital improvement projects for the county, [the Sarasota County School Board] and municipalities. It will apply to the first $5,000 of any purchase that is subject to the state sales tax.” The proceeds can be used only to invest in infrastructure projects planned in regard to “public safety, the environment, water quality, libraries, parks, schools and roads; it may not be used to pay for general operating expenses.”

One-quarter of the funds automatically go to the Sarasota County School Board, the website points out. The remaining 75% is distributed among the cities and the Town of Longboat Key, plus the county, according to population.

The county also has a policy calling for at least 50% of its share of the revenue to be used for transportation initiatives, including road resurfacing.

The first Surtax Program was authorized by voters in 1989, the county website adds. Voters approved the first extension in 1997 and another in 2007.

The County Commission, the School Board and each of the municipalities approved lists of projects to which they would dedicate the Surtax IV revenue, if the program were extended for another 15 years. Nonetheless, those lists can be modified as new needs arise, the county website explains. Such changes are linked to increases or decreases in the money the tax generates, as well as to updated community priorities, the website says. “Any changes would be preceded by a public hearing and vote by elected officials,” the website points out.

A graphic on the county website notes that staff is projecting a total of $908.2 million from Surtax IV through 2039. Of that amount, 51.2% — $464.7 million — would be spent on transportation projects. Another $129.3 million has been allocated to water quality and other environmental initiatives. For an example of the latter projects, $7 million has been set aside for the rehabilitation of sewer lines associated with the county’s Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility, which is being upgraded itself to Advanced Wastewater Treatment status. Another $4.5 million has been dedicated to the county’s Stormwater Flood Improvement Program.

New and redeveloped fire stations also are on the list, along with renovations and upgrades of libraries.