Michelle Anchors: The Half-Cent Tax Makes Sense
Dan: News Talk 1260, hello, you're on the air.
Vince Mayfield: Hey Diamond Dan, how are you, sir? Vince Mayfield, greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce.
Dan: You are the man, Vince. How are you today?
Vince Mayfield: I am fantastic, and I have an outstanding guest with me here today. Prominent attorney Michelle Anchors and champion of the School Cents Makes Sense campaign.
Michelle Anchors: Good morning.
Dan: Very nice, welcome, Michelle. Nice to have you on the air with us.
Michelle Anchors: Glad to be with you. Thanks, glad to be with you.
Dan: Thank you. Okay, so Vince, give everybody a rundown on what this School Cents Makes Sense, what this is all about with the referendum coming up on November 3rd.
Vince Mayfield: Well, on November 3rd the voters are going to get to decide whether we get a half penny to go to fix the aging infrastructure of our schools. Our schools are badly in need of improvement. We're talking about infrastructure that is absolutely critical, things like roofs. We're talking about HVAC, we're talking about overcrowding, and we're talking about technological improvements, as well as security.
Dan: Gotcha. And I know there's an awful lot of those mobile classrooms. What do they call those things?
Vince Mayfield: Portables.
Vince Mayfield: Yeah, we have 160 portables out there. So when a class size gets too big, by law the schools have to add some way of making the class size smaller, and if they don't have the physical infrastructure to do so they pull out portables. And the portables are outside, they're basically a trailer, and a lot of them are not connected to the physical school itself in any way. So there's no covering if there's inclement weather or a problem. And the average age of those bad boys is 27 years old. So we have got some real problems here in Okaloosa County, and it is a revenue problem. It is not an issue of accountability or inaccurate spending. They are basically, you can't squeeze water out of a stone. And that's basically what they're doing. You've heard me talk before that Florida as a whole ranks 43 out of 50 in all the states in per pupil spending, and they have an F rating. And then of course we have Okaloosa County here, which has some of the lowest taxes in the entire state, and the legislature has left it to the local folks to figure out how to fund schools properly and to make sure that they are adequately taken care of.
Dan: Yes, and you mentioned that it's going to be a half a cent sales tax increase. Would that take place, if this passes, take place on January 1st of 2021?
Vince Mayfield: Yes, sir, it would.
Dan: Okay. And how long is the referendum for? How long will the tax period be?
Vince Mayfield: So the tax sunsets after 10 years unless the voters choose to renew it at that particular time. We have about $500 million in need, and it has been reviewed and gone through a model by Jacobs Titan, and they have racked and stacked all of the needs and presented that list of schools. It's about $500 million in need. This tax will generate approximately $23 million a year, a total of about $230 million over the 10 years.
Dan: So even with the half cent sales tax it still falls short of what's really needed, it sounds like.
Vince Mayfield: That's absolutely true. Plus we are a growing at, Michelle, what is it, about 1. 5% a year? Is that what it is? So about 400 to 500, a small elementary school.
Michelle Anchors: That's right. Especially in the central part of the County in the Niceville area, and the northern part of the County in the Crestview area, we're seeing 400 to 500 students come into the County, and they have to have somewhere to go to school. And so we are pushing these schools now past the capacity that they were ever intended to house. And that's the reason that we go to supplements like trailers or temporary portables that are really not stable, strong, secure learning environments. And those portables just don't meet the standard for the teachers to work in or the schools ' students to study in.
Dan: But that's the only alternative they have, it sounds like.
Michelle Anchors: And one of the concerns, Dan, that I have just as a business person, when I look at the way that we invest in our business and the way that my clients choose to invest in their businesses, is what makes sense. And that's why we've called this campaign School Cents Makes Sense. What makes sense is not putting hundreds of thousands of dollars into temporary solutions like portables. And that's what the school district has been forced to do because there's not an adequate base of funding. So over the past five years we may have put over $500,000 just in portables instead of looking at long-term solutions. To have long-term solutions you have to have a long-term source of funding, and that's what the half cent sales tax produces.
Dan: Even though that half cent sales tax is going to produce quite a bit of money, that still would not be enough money to actually build new schools, would it?
Michelle Anchors: It's not. But what it does do is allow us then to free up some of our other money to take maintenance issues and handle them better, and also allow us to bond and borrow for future funding. So a brand new high school, just to put this in perspective, costs about $90 million. This sales tax brings in about $23 million a year. In the last two years since we haven't had a sales tax, and you may remember that it was considered as something that should go on the ballot in 2018. If we had done it two years ago, we would have now in the bank $46 million that could have funded one small new elementary school that's much needed in the middle part of the county. But instead we've missed that opportunity. And why Vince and I care so much about this is we don't want to miss the opportunity we have that's right before us right now and may not come again for a number of years.
Vince Mayfield: And Dan, the last time that we did this was 25 years ago in 1995. Then Superintendent Don Gates, they went after for the first time in Florida's history a half penny tax to fund the schools. That was over three years, they were able to build three new schools and do projects across the board in the county. That's 25 years ago and a lack of investment. And even some of those schools that were built are now starting to show 25 years of age and maintenance on them.
Dan: I'm glad you brought that up, Vince, because-
Michelle Anchors: Add to that-
Dan: I'm sorry, go ahead.
Michelle Anchors: Well, no, thanks, Dan. What I wanted to just mention is that every cent of that last sales tax from 25 years ago was spent and accounted for in a project that we can show you was fully developed and used as intended. And that's why we care so much now about also showing the public every cent that will be spent from this half cent sales tax is designated for one of the schools in Okaloosa County. Every single school will benefit, those projects are available on our website at schoolcentsmakessense. com. And there will be a committee of volunteers from the business community, one from each part of the county, Niceville, Crestview, Destin, Fort Walton Beach, that will come from different areas of project management, such as construction, finance, and technology, that will follow up to monitor and make sure in a transparent way that we are using those funds with accountability, so that someone 20 years from now can be on a radio show with Dan and say, " You know, in 2020 they adopted this and they spent every cent just as it was said it would be spent."
Dan: So for all the naysayers, this is going to be on a website should they want to call and check and see what projects are underway, what projects have been completed, what is on the list for projects. If they want to just check and say, " Well, this money is going where they said it was going to be going," that's going to be transparent enough for the public to go and look on the website and find out what is going on with their money. Is that correct?
Vince Mayfield: Absolutely. And Dan, you bring up an interesting point that a lot of people ... There is some opposition out there and there are some naysayers, and a lot of people in the public don't realize that every year the school district is financially audited. All of their financials are looked at, it is published on both the school district website as well as the Florida Department of Education. Another check is done at the Florida Department of Education, it's out there in plain view for anybody who wants to go look and see. In addition to that, like what happened with the county half cent, and as we've talked about on this show before, the county is funded differently from the school district. There are two different pockets of money in how it's come and how it's administered and what's done. The school district is separate. And every penny of that is, is accounted for and you can see it in black and white out there on the websites, as I've laid out. And so just like what we did with the county on the county half cent sales tax, there is a website where we're going to publish the projects that are going on, as well as the citizens advisory committee that Michelle talked about.
Dan: And that's what I think a lot of people would like to see that are maybe a little hesitant about this. Personally I'm not hesitant. I'd love to see the schools get upgraded for the necessary repairs that they need. And also, I'm glad you touched on earlier about the 25 years ago this same thing was done with Don Gates. And when it sunset, it sunset. It was not renewed, that was the end of it. So those that might be thinking, " Well, once we get a tax it will never go away," 25 years ago it did go away. So in 10 years from now if it doesn't get voted back in again, then it will sunset and that will be the end of it.
Michelle Anchors: That's right, Dan. And what's also happened in that 20-year period since it sunsetted is that the state and federal funding has been reduced substantially. So now we as locals have a problem, and we as locals have a solution. The state basically has given three options for locals to fund their public schools. And one is a sales tax, one is a different property tax, a millage rate that is higher that every property owner would pay, and the third is an impact fee that also has some downsides, particularly to those in the business community. So we've got three options to choose from. Every single county in the state of Florida other than two counties has chosen to implement one of those three funding mechanisms. And I'm super proud of where I grew up in Okaloosa County, super proud of where I live and my kids go to school and where I have a business, but I am not proud that we are one of two counties who have not elected another funding source. We, Okaloosa County and Duvall County and Jacksonville are the only ones who have not found an alternative and supplemental funding mechanism, and our schools are showing it. And that's why we feel so strongly that as a business community, if we want the quality of our economy to continue to grow and to prosper, then we need to lead the effort to invest in these schools. And we do it through half cent sales tax.
Dan: I agree. And the other revenues you're talking about, which a lot of property owners, whether you're a renter or you're a property owner, if the property tax increases, everybody feels it. Everybody that's local that lives in Okaloosa County is going to feel that pinch. However, with the sales tax we're going to have tourists help us pay for that, not just the people that live in Okaloosa County.
Vince Mayfield: Well, Dan, I'm glad you brought that up, because that's absolutely correct. Because some of the opposition out there is talking about this 56% number that we have. And so back when we did the half cent tax for the county, we went to the Haas Center at UWF and asked Dr. Rick Harper and all of his economists and economic developers to do a study so that we could tell the voters exactly how much each household would pay and what percentage would be paid by the tourists. And Dr. Harper ran that study, and he came back and told us that basically 56% of that would be paid for by the tourists. Now, the numbers that have been calculated, the naysayers out there have looked at the off tax seasons. They've picked January and February and March, and everybody knows that those aren't our peak seasons. We collect infinitely more money during the summer time than what we do, or during our peak months of tourist season, than we do in the off season. So you have to look at the whole picture, and that's exactly what Dr. Harper did. He's an eminent scholar, well known for a long time. The Haas Center, well known for doing these economic impact studies and exactly coming back with the numbers. And the numbers are out there from the Florida Department of Revenue. That's where the raw numbers come from. It's pretty easy, but you've got to understand economic development. You've got to understand how the taxes come in. You've got to understand when the peak seasons are in order to come in and do the math and say, " Okay, this is where the math shows that this needs to be done." If you start from a faulty premise or a faulty model, you're going to get faulty outcomes.
Dan: Well, sure.
Michelle Anchors: And if you go on vacation somewhere else, particularly in the state of Florida, you can be dang sure that you're paying a sales tax that's funding other schools. We simply are looking for the same thing here in Okaloosa County.
Dan: Yeah, I agree.
Vince Mayfield: And Dan, I would say one other thing. As a business owner, if people think, I've seen some chatter out there on the web, or people say, " Well, nobody makes their decisions to come here because of the schools." If they think a business isn't going to come here, I'm going to tell you they're absolutely wrong. So if you go talk to Nathan Sparks at the Economic Development Council, then he will tell you that schools are absolutely a factor in terms of economic development when site selectors come to decide whether or not they're going to move somebody here like Mercedes-Benz to the north side of the county, or whether you are a Dollar General or another store or defense contractor that's moving into the area. They look at those things because they know they have to support the workforce. Additionally, the United States military. We've had General Cain has come spoke to our MAC, he's talked about that quality of life for his soldiers and support within the community are absolutely critical. And first and foremost within that is the quality of our schools. In fact, the Department of Defense ranks all the schools that are supported for the Department of Defense, in other words, near bases. And we rank in the bottom 1 / 3 there. Not because of our ability to educate students, but across the board in terms of our infrastructure.
Dan: Well, we do have great education here. I think we're A or A + in our area. The education is not the issue. It's the infrastructure that's the issue.
Vince Mayfield: That's correct. We rank fourth in the state and we are one of six ... Sorry, we have been A + for six years in a row, we rank top in math and science for seventh and eighth grade. The teachers here do a great job. The administrators, all of the folks in the Okaloosa County school system, the band directors, the athletic directors, everybody works hard. I think of them as Rudy, always trying to come from behind as the underdog and really try to produce and to succeed. And that's what they're doing. They are succeeding in spite of the fact that they are underfunded, but ultimately that's going to catch up with us and it's going to catch up with our local businesses. If we don't want to see declining property values, if we don't want to see good talent that we want to come here ... For example, I spoke with Tim Bullock, the administrator up at Crestview, and he told me that there are three doctors that they've tried to recruit to the north end of the county that they could not get into the medical center up there because their families looked at the condition of the schools. Last week at the Chamber of Commerce Eric **Aden** talked about when the police chief was hired for Fort Walton Beach, that the condition of the schools was an absolute concern of his. I can tell you firsthand as a company that brings in high-tech engineers into the area, I've lost two. So it is a real problem, that if we continue to ignore it we're going to reap the benefits in terms of declined property values. We're going to turn into something akin to Detroit with blight and brownout areas.
Dan: Yeah. I would say that right now, Vince, you you've talked about that you went to Choctaw High School, and if you would elaborate on that just a little bit when you went back to see it again.
Vince Mayfield: Yeah. There's two things, there's a great video out there by Jared Williams, Get The Coast. Jared's really tried to make a name for himself as a reporter and he's done a great job. He does great videos. He's looked at Crestview High School, he's looked at Dustin Elementary, he's looked at Choctaw High School. And if you go in and you watch that video, you will literally be sickened in your stomach. I watched that video last week. I got a notification that it was coming out and I watched the video. And as I got through the video I had a sick feeling come into my stomach, because I've got a daughter who's a rock star softball player, and she's in the band and she wants to be a Style Marcher. She's in middle school right now. And I thought, " Holy cow, I don't want my kid to go to school there, with the ..." I shudder to say the M word, or mold, in the vents, and the conditions there, with sewage that spilled over into the causeways. It's a problem, and it's embarrassing, and it speaks volumes to the condition and the investment in our county. If you don't think that schools are an economic driver, you need to think again.
Dan: Yes, and the mere fact that these schools are how old now, Vince?
Vince Mayfield: Well, Choctaw opened in 1966, I believe it was Niceville in 1969.
Michelle Anchors: 75% of our schools are over 45 years old. So they're old, and as I've said, it's not in and of itself that they're old is the problem. What's the problem is when you don't find a way to invest in it. It's just like an old house or an old building. The Vince Mayfield building where we are right now is old, but they have ways to replace the roof, to make sure the HVAC system is in good shape. And that's what we haven't done. And my concern as we look at this issue, people are voting right now, not just on November 3rd. 60% of the vote will be in by November 3rd. So we urgently want people to look at the facts right now, ask any teacher whether they think they can continue to have the same good results in the same buildings they're in, and not look for blame, blaming past school boards or blaming superintendents. We need to take responsibility for finding the solution. And we think that this is one, and we've just got to step up and take advantage of it while it's in front of us. And we've got three weeks to do that.
Dan: Yeah. I agree with you, because just because a building's old doesn't mean that it can't be upgraded along the way, upgrading HVAC systems, replacing roofs, and doing facelifts when you can here and there. If you're doing that along the way, the buildings themselves, even though they're aged, can also be upgraded to look a lot more modern. And like you were talking about, mold being cleaned out of it, making sure the sewer systems operate correctly, all those things can be managed and they can be upgraded. Doesn't necessarily mean that you just throw the school away and start over again. But those things have to happen.
Vince Mayfield: Yeah. Eventually those things get out of whack. If you look at at how much money that Okaloosa has to fund the school infrastructure, they collect $30 million. And if you look over at neighboring Santa Rosa County, they also bring in $30 million. Now, that $30 million that is over in Santa Rosa County does 9, 000 students. And over in Okaloosa County it does 32, 000 students. I'm sorry, not Santa Rosa, Walton. And we have 38 schools over here. I don't know if you've been down Highway 98 lately and looked at the brand new Dune Elementary School over there, but it is literally state of the art. It looks like something out of a futuristic movie.
Dan: It's beautiful.
Vince Mayfield: And then you drive by some of our schools and take a look at that and then the old technology that they're using.
Dan: Yeah, upgrades are definitely needed. Well, I appreciate the two of you coming on. We're just about out of time. We have Vince Mayfield, of course you are the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce chair this year for 2020, which has been just one crazy year for everybody, including the Chamber. And also attorney Michelle Anchors, we appreciate all that you have done as well. So the two of you together, along with many other people, are pushing to have this referendum on November 3rd to be pushed through for a half cent sales tax increase, School Cents Makes Sense. We appreciate you coming on and explaining this. I know, Vince, you'll be back again next Tuesday and we'll be talking about this again.
Vince Mayfield: Yes, sir. Thank you, Dan. We appreciate your time, and thank you, Michelle, for being here today.
Michelle Anchors: Thank you both.