Jackson County Commissioners held a public hearing on the potential nickel increase in the local option gas tax Tuesday, with all but one speaker opposed to the change. If passed, the increase would take effect Jan. 1, 2020.

The county already has a long-standing 7-cent-on-the-gallon local option amount in place. The increase would bring the total to 12 cents on the gallon, the most allowed.

The second and final required public hearing is set for June 18 at 9:15 a.m. The board could vote on the matter immediately following that session.

The lone supporter who spoke at the hearing Tuesday, Lynette Brown, said she thought the increase would be the best option to help the county keep improving roads. “Roads need help and I don’t think our county will grow without that infrastructure improved,” she said, adding that the county should prioritize paving more roads going forward, especially if the tax is increased.

Those opposing spoke of several objections. One, Diane Johnson, asserted that the increase of 5 cents per gallon, added to the 7 cents that the county already has in place, would make local gas prices “higher than anywhere in this economically depressed area.” She went on to call the proposed increase “absolutely ridiculous” under the circumstances and, speaking of the local area, said “this is a ghost town” and indicated she thought a gas tax increase could make things worse. The county’s decision, she said, could make or break the areas continued efforts to recover from Hurricane Michael, a shortage of well-paying jobs, and other problems.

Linda Husted, the owner of a local business, also objected, saying local entrepreneurs have already suffered much in and in the wake of Hurricane Michael and adding that “we’re already taxed to death.” She asserted that another five-cent per gallon in gas taxes would make things just that much worse for businesses. “I don’t need any more economic pressure on my small business," she added. “It’s a great burden to me. “

J.D. Ryals was also opposed. He said such an increase would be one more pricing challenge faced by locals since Hurricane Michael. He asserts that stores are increasing the costs of materials in what he described as a time of crisis for the area. “It’s hard on everybody at this time,” he said. “What is it that people think we have (income-wise)? We don’t have it. Our salaries are not going up, stores and materials are going up. You can go to the store now and you have to pay $12 for something that cost $5 before the storm. It’s like price gouging, stabbing people in the back. It hurts my pocket,” he continued.

If the board passes the tax by majority-plus-one vote, as require for a commission-induced increase, it could raise more than $1.3 million per year to help the county maintain, repair and improve roads. If it passes, the county might be able to take some of the burden off the general revenue account, from which the board typically has to take dollars to supplement the road and bridge department.

After members of the public spoke at the first public hearing Tuesday, Commissioners James Peacock verified that the tax will not apply to diesel fuel – that’s by federal law – saying he felt the proposed ordinance needed to better clarify that fact if it’s passed.

Commissioner and board chairman Clint Pate spoke briefly, pointing out some of the reasons he supports the increase. “I’ve heard a lot of people say it’s not a good idea, but the county is in bad shape, and 5 cent on a gallon of gas will bring (almost) $1.4 million into the county, with 30 percent of that going to the municipalities” to help those communities, he said, with the rest to county road and bridge for transportation needs. “We are going to have a shortage on (property) taxes,” Pate continued. “This 5 cent would give tourists and others driving through (a share of local road costs),” he said. “Only 36 percent (of Jackson County households) pay ad valorem, so this would give some others some time in the game.”

Commissioner Willie Spires also spoke briefly, saying that citizens need to realize that, just as individual costs are escalating, so, too, are the costs of running counties.

County Administrator Wilanne Daniels also commented, pointing out that Florida has the lowest sales compared to several other southern states and that locals do not have to pay a state income tax. “How are we going to get money to address infrastructure?” she asked. “If you don’t’ have infrastructure, you don’t grow.”

The public hearing will take place just after the start of the county’s only regular June meeting, on the 18th.

The county does have a special June session, set for 9 a.m. on Tuesday, June 4, to discuss the details of how the county will move forward with its storm debris removal responsibilities as the Florida Department of Transportation withdraws from that role, which it had assumed a few days after Hurricane Michael.

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