Martin commissioners hope for federal funds to dredge St. Lucie Inlet; half-percent sales tax other possible optionApril 2nd, 2011 by TCPalm.com
By George Andreassi
STUART — Several Martin County officials are traveling to Washington on Monday to ask federal lawmakers and military officials to pay for the emergency dredging of the channel in the St. Lucie Inlet.
But with Congress in a budget-cutting mood, the county commissioners are also considering having a referendum on a proposed half percent sales tax to pay to maintain the depth of the inlet, which is crucial to the county’s recreational boaters and marine industries.
“The conversation in regards to the half-cent sales tax referendum, I’m not there yet because I haven’t given up hope that we will find some more traditional funding for that,” Commission Chairman Ed Ciampi.
“Historically, a large percentage of the funding came from the federal government,” Ciampi said. “We can still try to find some funding either through appropriations or maybe some discretionary funds that the Army Corps (of Engineers) may have.”
But if it’s impossible to get the federal money, the commissioners would have to try to build widespread public support for the proposed half-percent sales tax, Ciampi said.
The Stuart/Martin County Chamber of Commerce last week asked the commissioners to conduct a referendum during the 2012 elections on the sales tax to pay for maintenance dredging of the St. Lucie Inlet and stormwater facilities and maintenance.
Commissioner Doug Smith said he’d rather have the referendum in late August or early September so the current half-cent sales tax for parks and conservation land, which is set to expire Dec. 31, could be extended and used for dredging and stormwater issues.
Ciampi and Commissioner Patrick Hayes said they supported having the sales tax referendum this year if the federal government refuses to pay for the inlet dredging.
It would be a mistake to delay the dredging and risk the inlet becoming unnavigable because that would devastate the county’s marine industries, which provide thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars a year in economic activity, Hayes said. A hurricane or Nor’easter could fill the channel with sand.
“To a businessman, it would make a lot more sense to do it this year and not be exposed to the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars of marine industry income,” Hayes said.
If the commissioners want a referendum in late August or early September, they have until early May to decide whether to have a special election, said Supervisor of Elections Vicki Davis. A special election would cost $117,305.
Hayes said Martin County should also seek a contribution from St. Lucie County for the inlet dredging because many St. Lucie County boaters travel through the St. Lucie Inlet instead of the Fort Pierce Inlet.
Commissioner Ed Fielding said he wanted to study the issue more before discussing it, and Commissioner Sarah Heard could not be reached for comment.
However, their close political ally, Stuart attorney Virginia Sherlock, started circulating a petition Thursday asking the commissioners not to have a referendum in 2011 and to seek public participation before placing the question on the ballot during the 2012 elections.
“Local taxpayers have already been taxed to the limit,” Sherlock states in the petition. “The fiscal health of all Martin County residents and the competitiveness of all local businesses strongly support the rejection of any extension of the local sales tax surcharge.
“When the existing discretionary tax expires, all Martin County residents will immediately enjoy an increase in local purchasing power and all Martin County businesses will gain an advantage for their consumers over similar businesses in surrounding counties which charge a higher sales tax rate,” Sherlock states in the petition.
Posted April 1, 2011 at 5:35 p.m., updated April 1, 2011 at 9:53 p.m.