School board won’t consider half-cent sales tax

OKEECHOBEE — The Okeechobee County School Board briefly considered holding a workshop on a new half-cent sales tax, but the motion to hold the workshop died after it failed to find a second.

Board member Melisa Jahner brought up the half-cent sales tax near the end of the board’s meeting on Nov. 12.

“I’d like to ask the board to reconsider bringing the half-cent sales tax back up for discussion,” said Mrs. Jahner. “I feel as a board we need to move forward with this to have funding for our SROs, rather than going year to year begging for it. And at our town hall meeting we heard about the need for capital improvements in our schools and I know we need buses. I just feel that right now we have our community behind us and I think we should consider it.”

“I agree with Mrs. Jahner that we need to continue to move forward,” board member Malissa Morgan replied, “but I also know that we as a board have agreed to pursue special facilities funding. Hoping that money to fund the building of a new high school would come from the state. I don’t feel comfortable with putting a tax out there right now, when I know we can go to the state and hopefully get in line there without affecting our constituents here.”

Board member Joe Arnold agreed with Mrs. Jahner that there were many needs within the school district currently but thought taxes in Okeechobee were too high relative to other counties.

“When you look at our taxes in comparison to other rural counties, I don’t know how much more of a burden that a lot of folks can handle,” explained Mr. Arnold. “That gives me a little bit of heartburn. There are needs but maybe we can sit down and prioritize some of those needs and see if we can fund them with the budget we already have.”

A half-cent sales tax was brought up back during the Aug. 13 Okeechobee County budget workshop. At the workshop, Okeechobee County Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs said some school districts have placed a half-cent sales tax on the ballot. He said the half-cent sales tax could help pay for the School Resource Officers who work in the schools, and also help fund student mental health programs.

“Over 60 percent of our residents are in manufactured housing,” said Commissioner Bryant Culpepper. “Because of the diminishing value of manufactured housing, over the years it goes down and the homeowners wind up paying nothing in taxes except for the fire and EMS assessments. That puts a larger tax burden on the businesses and those who own conventional homes.”

“It’s not fair to them, to keep putting that burden on them,” Mr. Culpepper continued. “With a sales tax, everyone contributes.”

Chairman Burroughs said similar sales tax referendums have included a sunset clause so the tax would only be for a limited time and asked Superintendent of Schools Ken Kenworthy to take the referendum idea back to the school board.

“I’m willing to talk about a half-cent sales tax, but I can tell you I’m not comfortable with it,” said Mr. Arnold at the Nov. 12 school board meeting.

School Board Chairwoman Amanda Riedel also expressed her discomfort with a half-cent sales tax but mentioned if the board wanted more discussion that perhaps a workshop could be scheduled on the subject.

Mrs. Jahner made a motion to schedule a workshop on a half-cent sales tax, but received no second, which caused the motion to fail.

After the motion failed, Mr. Arnold thanked Mrs. Jahner for bringing up a difficult subject and said he hopes all board members feel comfortable bringing similar things up at the meeting, regardless of how other members may feel on the subject.

Richard Marion is a staff writer and photographer at Lake Okeechobee News and can be reached at rmarion@newszap.com.

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