CHIPLEY - Washington County officials are hoping a five cents gas tax will help generate the revenue needed to help pull the county out of staggering debt.
The tax, commonly called the ELMS Nickel, allows counties to levy a fuel tax of up to five cents and requires approval by a supermajority vote from the Board of County Commissioners.
The revenue - projected to be about $458,000 a year - would be distributed between the county and its municipalities through an interlocal agreement. Of that amount, the county would receive about $400,000, and the rest would be split between the cities.
Interim Clerk of Court Harold Bazzel says the idea is to earmark revenue from the levy to fund road projects as allowed by the state, freeing other funds to be allocated to repay the county's debts.
"Washington County is in serious debt," said Bazzel. "It didn't get this way all at once, so our commissioners inherited a mess. There's been a cycle of spending and borrowing since sometime in the 90s, and it needs to stop."
Currently, notes owed by the county total more than $8.2 million.
One of those debts, owed to SunTrust Bank, is on a $5.5 million sales tax promissory note used for various projects, such as renovations to the county offices on South Blvd. Washington County has only paid interest on that loan since 2009, an amount projected in this year's audit to be around $280,000. The terms of the loan state its principal is due October 1.
"Over the years, the county has been trying to borrow away the debt," said Bazzel. "And come October, the bank could call that note."
Bazzel contracted with former Leon County Financial Director Bill Bogan to help address the problem. Bogan assures residents the county is working to identify and address its budgetary issues, and the note won't be called.
"We're not going to let it get to that point," said Bogan. "We hope to renegotiate that note with the bank and begin to pay it down, as well as other debts, rather than just keep paying interest."
County Attorney Jeff Goodman will draft the ELMS Nickel proposal, which will be presented to local municipalities for approval, as well as in a public hearing.
"This is really the best option," said Bazzel. "Instead of through raising property taxes, revenue will be generated by all residents, as well as those just passing through, not just property owners."
If the proposal passes, the new five cents fuel levy will become effective January 1, 2015.