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By Michele Dargan, Special to the Civic Association.  At Monday’s Meet Your Candidates forum, Todd Bonlarron, an assistant county administrator, deciphered the confusing language contained in the five questions on the November 8 ballot.

In addition to Mr. Bonlarron, Joseph Rooney, acting president and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, and Fred Scheibl, of the Palm Beach County Taxpayer Action Board, gave their differing perspectives on the countywide proposal to increase the sales tax by one percent. Rooney is for the tax and Scheibl is against it.

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Sponsored by the Palm Beach Civic Association and the Citizen’s Association of Palm Beach, the event drew more than 150 people to Nick and Johnnie’s restaurant to hear from some of the candidates and get information on the ballot questions.

Civic Association President Ned Barnes introduced Mr. Bonlarron as “the person who knows more about these ballot questions than anyone I’ve ever met.”

In just under 10 minutes, Mr. Bonlarron gave an overview of the one countywide and four statewide ballot questions, saying it usually takes him an hour to explain them. The statewide questions are numbered one, two, three and five, because number four was voted on and passed during the primary election.

Todd Bonlarron, Assistant Palm Beach County Administrator

Question 1 – Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice.

Consumers already have a right to own or lease solar utilities for their properties, Mr. Bonlarron said.
The proponents are primarily utility companies throughout Florida, which spent $20 to 25 million to get this initiative passed, he said.

The utilities companies are concerned that in the future there might be opportunities for unregulated, small solar companies to expand and provide solar utilities for smaller developments outside of the grid as well as outside of the regulated industry, Mr. Bonlarron said.

Floridians for Solar Choice oppose the amendment. They believe the ambiguity of the language would make it more expensive and create more barriers for people who want to put solar into their commercial and residential properties, he said.

Question 2 – Use of Marijuana for Debilitating Medical Conditions

A similar initiative received 57 percent of the vote in the 2014 election, failing to receive the 60 percent needed to pass.

Proponents retooled the issue and narrowed the scope to 10 diseases that would qualify for medical marijuana. They also narrowed the scope of how caregivers can provide the medical marijuana to patients. A third stipulation is that the department of health will maintain the authority to govern the distribution of medical marijuana, Mr. Bonlarron said.

There currently is medical marijuana distributed in Florida in “a very limited capacity,” Mr. Bonlarron said. This amendment would allow for a broader use of medical marijuana for more debilitating diseases, he said.

Proponents: AFL-CIO, the NAACP and Florida Democratic Party.
Opponents: The Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Medical Association.
Opponents don’t believe some of the issues that are out there justify broadening the medical marijuana program, Mr. Bonlarron said.

Question 3 – Tax Exemption for Totally and Permanently Disabled First Responders

A “yes” vote on this amendment would give first responders the ability to get additional tax exemptions on their property if they are permanently disabled in the line of duty.

A “no” vote would not give the additional tax exemptions to first responders who were permanently disabled in the line of duty.
Question 5 – Homestead Tax Exemption for Certain Senior, Low-Income, Long-Term Residents; Determination of Just Value.

The state constitution already provides tax exemptions for homes valued at less than $250,000 owned by low-income individuals over the age of 65 who have lived in the home for at least 25 years.

A “yes” vote on this amendment means that seniors, who are approved for the tax break, would be able to keep this exemption even if their home’s value rose above $250,000 in future years.

A “no” vote means that the approved seniors would not keep the exemption if their home’s value rose above $250,000 in the future.

Question 5 – Homestead Tax Exemption for Certain Senior, Low-Income, Long-Term Residents; Determination of Just Value

The state constitution already provides tax exemptions for homes valued at less than $250,000 owned by low-income individuals over the age of 65 who have lived in the home for at least 25 years.

A “yes” vote on this amendment means that seniors, who are approved for the tax break, would be able to keep this exemption even if their home’s value rose above $250,000 in future years.

A “no” vote means that the approved seniors would not keep the exemption if their home’s value rose above $250,000 in the future.

Countywide Question – Palm Beach County District Schools, Cities and County Government Infrastructure One-Cent Sales Surtax

If approved, this would raise the county’s sales tax from 6 to 7 percent for up to 10 years. The increased revenue would be split among the school district, the county and the municipalities to replace and repair equipment, supplies, and decaying infrastructure. 

Fifty percent will go to the school district of Palm Beach County and the rest to municipalities and county government.
Joseph Rooney, of The Economic Council of Palm Beach County, spoke in favor of the tax.

“The economic council’s mission is to create an environment for businesses to prosper,” he said. “That’s what the sales tax will do.”

Mr. Rooney said that other county business organizations also are supporting the issue.

“With poor infrastructure, poor schools and roads, it’s very difficult to attract businesses to Palm Beach County,” he said. “It’s critical for us to have solid infrastructure and good schools to create a good business environment.”

All the money raised from this tax stays in Palm Beach County, Mr. Rooney said. He also said that an independent citizen review is a component to this tax and will ensure that it will be administered properly.

A significant part of this tax – about 30 percent - will be paid from out-of-town tourists, Mr. Rooney said. The money raised can only be used to improve schools and roads in the county, because the language is specific on how it must be allocated, he said. “We’re looking for reduced traffic, better roads, better schools that are fully functioning, better technology in those schools, safer school buses, improved parks, roads that don’t flood every time it rains and wastewater improvements.”

 Fred Scheibl, of the Palm Beach County Taxpayer Action Board, spoke against the tax.

If the voters reject this, the school district and the county can get the money they need through a bond, Mr. Scheibl said.  “We have a Triple-A bond rating and, therefore, the interest rates will be cheap,” he said.

Mr. Scheibl said the county has been trying to get this on the ballot since 2010, but it was just a “grab bag” of projects.
“There was road striping, bridge fixing and a couple of buildings that were in need of maintenance,” he said. “This time, by partnering with the school district, they can say it’s about the children, not about the road striping, and that’s helpful.”

A one percent sales tax increase – with 30 percent going to the county and 20 percent to the municipalities - will raise much more money than is actually needed for critical infrastructure projects and the additional monies will be spent on non-essential projects, he said.

“If you look at the 20-page list that the county put out on what they want to fix, how many of those existed a year ago and how many were put on that list just to make sure it equaled the amount of money they were going to take in?” he said.

“Whatever infrastructure shortfall exists, it was by a conscious choice,” Mr. Scheibl said. “During the last five years, the county budget (not including the school district) went up 33 percent. During that time, 28 percent went up in the sheriff’s budget. County employees got a 12 ½ percent cost of living raise; while the Public Works (department) budget went up only 3 percent.”