Collier voters approve sales tax increase by slim margin

Native to the region, the wild turkey was adopted as Collier County's emblem by the Board of County Commissioners at their first meeting held on July 7, 1923.  When the county seat was relocated to East Naples in 1962, the emblem was incorporated into the County seal that was designed by Margaret T. Scott.  Scott was Clerk of Courts from 1959 until 1976.

Collier County has started to prepare to put into effect a sales tax increase to pay for a variety of ambitious and backlogged projects, after voters bucked a trend of past tax measures failing.

The countywide referendum passed Tuesday by a margin of fewer than 2,500 votes, with 73,090 votes, or 51 percent, in favor and 70,619 votes, or 49 percent, against it, according to unofficial results.

The tax increase will raise Collier’s sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent for seven years or after it brings in $490 million, whichever happens first.

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The money raised by the tax hike will be spent on 18 projects, including new roads and bridges, a mental health facility to relieve an overburdened jail, and a workforce technical training center. Collier will collect $420 million, and the remaining $70 million will be shared among Naples, Marco Island and Everglades City based on their populations.

County commissioners will now have to draft an ordinance to create a citizen oversight committee, said Commission Chairman Andy Solis. 

"That would be the next step," he said.

The county Wednesday announced it was seeking applications for seven open seats on the committee. Five members will be residents of each of the five commission districts, and two members will be at-large members.

"Applicants should have background and experience related to financial or business management," the county said in a news release.

Which of the projects will be funded first is not clear yet.  

"The different projects have different time frames," Solis said.

A large project such as the Vanderbilt Beach Road extension takes longer than smaller ones such as replacing HVACs at county facilities, he said.

"The logistics of each one are going to be different," Solis said.

County staff, he said, will start doing their analysis and come up with a schedule.

Historically, the proposed sales tax hike faced an uphill battle in a county where such measures can be tough to pass. 

Prior to Tuesday night, of the six sales tax referenda placed on county ballots since 1974, five failed to pass, according to the Collier Supervisor of Elections Office. And earlier this year, voters rejected by large margins proposals that would have allowed fire fees to be levied in the North Collier and Immokalee fire districts.

But Tuesday’s unexpected result may be in part due to the financial muscle the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce put behind having the initiative passed. (Naples Daily News President and Publisher Bill Barker is chairman of the Chamber’s board of directors.)

The Chamber’s political action committee, called One Collier, raised more than $90,000, drawing on a network of Chamber-affiliated residents and pouring $80,000 of the organization’s own funds into the PAC. The political action committee spent more than $87,000 for signs, digital and social advertising, mailers and a website, among other things.

"I would give strong credit to the messaging from the proponents," said tax increase opponent Ron Kezeske, a small-business owner and the chairman of the Collier County Republican Party. "It was well sold. I still personally take my objections to it."

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Kezeske said that based on the history of such referenda in Collier and the polling that had been done, he was "very shocked" at Tuesday's result. 

"This isn't a loss for Collier County," Kezeske said. "It's just a difference in how to pursue a desirable goal."

In a statement, Michael Dalby, the Chamber's president and CEO, said the organization was "thrilled" with Tuesday's results and "pleased that Collier voters agree that this time-limited approach is the best way to fund a wide variety of infrastructure, public safety and community priorities."

He encouraged county commissioners "to quickly act to prioritize the project list and appoint a citizen oversight committee" and urged Naples, Marco Island and Everglades City "to formally vet and finalize their project list so that taxpayers can see how their dollars will be spent."

Dudley Goodlette, chairman of the One Collier PAC and past chairman of the Chamber, said he was delighted with the outcome and appreciative of the fact that a majority of commissioners allowed the measure to be put on ballots.

"I'm pleasantly surprised," he said.

Goodlette said the Chamber's financial involvement was less of a factor than voters educating themselves on the issue.

"What this spoke to was not political persuasion at all," he said, adding that instead it had to do with "what revenue source we utilize to fulfill the community needs."

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The very narrow margin shows that "people were curious enough to learn about it," Goodlette added. Voters were able to take advantage of the county's "exceptionally informative" website, he said.

For the Chamber, some of the most important projects tied to the sales tax increase are the so-called community priorities, which include a career and technical training center, a workforce housing land trust fund and a mental health facility, Goodlette said. 

"Those were our priorities," he said. "Those were what motivated the Chamber to get involved."



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