BRADENTON -- A proposed state bill requiring at least 60 percent approval on local referendums could have serious repercussions on Manatee County's plans to raise money to build new schools.
While not formalized, the district will likely ask voters to approve extending the half-cent sales tax, which helps pay for capital projects. As the Manatee County school district is poised to build new schools to meet increased growth, at least one new high school is on the horizon. It's likely the district will need at least one new middle school and one new elementary school as well.
Senate Bill 1100, if adopted, would raise the bar on getting approval for a sales tax increase. Instead of a "simple majority" -- 50 percent of the votes plus one -- the bill would change local referenda to a "super majority" -- where local governments would need at least 60 percent of voters to approve the measure. That super majority is what is already required at the state level to change the Florida state constitution.
The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-Pinellas, also requires local government to hold the referendum on the same day as the general election, which is what the school board is likely to do anyway to avoid the cost associated with a special election. A House version of the bill has been sponsored by State Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill.
If passed, the bill, currently in committee, would go into effect in July, and would be in effect for the potential November referendum for the school district.
"It will make it harder, but it's not impossible," Manatee County School Board Chairwoman Karen Carpenter said. "It's up to the voters and whether we can make a case to the voters, I don't know."
The half-penny sales tax brings in about $30 million a year for the school district, according to officials. In 2002, Manatee County voters approved the referendum in a special elections with a 61 percent approval rating.
Board Vice Chairman Charlie Kennedy said he doesn't understand the logic behind the bill.
"My overall thought is why the intrusion into local politics? It doesn't make any sense to me," he said.
Kennedy said he thinks the district would get the simple majority.
"I think we can get over 50" percent, he said. "At 60, I would be sweating."
The district is hoping to raise money from several sources in order to pay for schools. County commissioners have already approved reinstating school-specific impact fees, which are collected on newly constructed homes in the county and can only be used by the district to help handle that specific growth. The impact fees for schools will be collected beginning in April. The fees have been suspended since 2009, during the Great Recession.
For the first year, impact fees will be collected at 50 percent of the maximum allowed rate as calculated by an independent company that completed an impact fee study. District officials expect to raise about $6.6 million the first year. In the second year, impact fees will be collected at 75 percent of the maximum allowed rate, and in the third year, impact fees will be collected at 100 percent.
The school board also attached a caveat that many county commissioners wish had not been included. If at any point, voters in Manatee County approve extending the half-penny sales tax, the collection rate for school impact fees will drop to 50 percent.
Tying the impact fees to the sales tax has already raised issues for some county commissioners and some residents, who view tying the two together as giving a break to developers or just bad business for a district that is in need of extra cash.
The new state bill, if it becomes law, would make it that much harder for the district to get approval on extending the sales tax, a much more flexible and a much bigger pot of money for the district.
In addition to the sales tax and impact fees, the board may look to voters to approve increasing the millage rate on that portion of property taxes that goes to the school district to help cover capital costs. The state sets a cap on the millage for school districts, but some districts -- including Sarasota -- have received voter approval to collect above that limit.
The board may also look at bonding the yet-to-be approved sales tax revenue. Bonding can be done without voter approval, but voters would need to approve increasing their school taxes.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.