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Ormond Beach Observer Monday, Jan. 13, 2020 6 months ago

Volusia Forever, ECHO and the sales tax: a 'bundled' referendum for 2022?

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'It only makes sense,' County Council Chair Ed Kelley said.
by: Jarleene Almenas Associate Editor

While an infrastructure sales tax is seeming less and less likely to make an appearance in the 2020 ballot, Volusia County elected officials are mulling over another possibility: What if a sales tax referendum was placed in the 2022 ballot, and there was a way to bundle Volusia Forever and ECHO in with it?

It was a suggestion brought up by DeLand Mayor Bob Apgar at the Roundtable of Volusia County Elected Officials meeting held on Monday, Jan. 13, as both Volusia Forever and the ECHO program sunset this year. Apgar said he had planned to hold four small group meetings in the hiatus between the roundtable meetings to get a better grip on how to handle a new referendum, though due to the holidays, he was only able to hold one. 

“Over this time I became personally more and more convinced that we’ve lost some advocates along the way for a referendum in 2020,"Apgar said.

His "aha moment" came, he said, when he thought about bundling an infrastructure sales tax, Volusia Forever and ECHO into a one-cent sales tax — a move County Council Chair Ed Kelley found favorable. 

Kelley said $15 million a year goes ECHO and Volusia Forever. In 2000, residents voted to tax themselves .2 mils for each program, a total of .4 mils, for 20 years. The funds brought into those programs totals 6.5% of the total tax Volusia County collects, Kelley said.

Volusia Forever was formed to finance the acquisition and improvements of conservation and outdoor recreation lands. The last purchase made using these funds was in fiscal year 2011-2012, said county Public Information Officer Kevin Captain in an email. 

In 2018, ECHO financed $2.3 million worth of projects around the county.

By combining the programs with a sales tax, Kelley said the county would be able to reduce property taxes and shift some of the burden to be paid by tourists. 

“To me, it only makes sense," Kelley said. "But being able to get there, it takes a chalkboard or something for you to see you’re taking sales tax money and using it to help fund things that the tourists and others use, for which they’re paying.”

But, can it even be done? Apgar said the county will need to look into the legality and specifics of it all.

At least one person in the room thought this bundling was a bad idea. County Councilwoman Heather Post said bundling amendments at a state level hasn't been received well by citizens, and she expected the same reaction at the local level.

She also mentioned that at the last roundtable meeting, the discussion revolved around improving infrastructure for space.

“These are very mixed messages that we’re sending out to the public," she said.

County Councilman Ben Johnson said Apgar was right in waiting until 2022, but that residents want ECHO and Volusia Forever to be placed in the 2020 ballot. He suggested putting a caveat in the 2022 sales tax referendum pertaining to bundling them together at that point.  

Apgar said there's a long way to go until 2022, and that this notion of bundling a referendum . could die very quickly. 

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