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Voter-approved sales tax referendum is a viable option

April 13, 2016
By MARY FISCHER , Lehigh Acres Citizen

The School District of Lee County is, indeed, a large organization. We are, depending on when you look, either the first or second largest employer in Lee County along with Lee Memorial Health System.

Lee County is experiencing tremendous growth. Over the past decade the Cape Coral-Fort Myers area has been one of the fastest-growing metro areas in the United States - and that trend continues. Lee County's population is now dominated by working-age people. In fact, the county's 18-24 year olds - those available to enter the workforce - is growing about twice as fast as that of Florida and many times faster than the United States. That being said, the school district has a tremendous responsibility - to prepare young people for higher education and the world of work.

We have 121 schools and over 91,000 students (see www.leeschools/fast-facts).

For the past decade, although we have continued to grow, we have experienced budget cuts and today have a budget of $1.3 billion which is less than it was in 2006-07, when we had 79,000 students and $1.57 billion. Essentially we have a capital funds crisis. Our capital budget is $190 million compared with $706 million in 2007.

We need to build more schools and to continue to maintain the facilities we have and to not incur more debt. For the past few years, we have discussed funding options, and it is my opinion that asking the voters to approve a 1/2 cent sales tax initiative is our best option. We must be on solid financial ground. Sales tax will be the best way for us to get there.

That is why I proposed at the April 5 meeting that we consider moving forward with the referendum for the November 2016 election.

Sales tax can be used to pay for building schools, facility maintenance, transportation needs and debt reduction. Everybody pays a little and approximately 30 percent is paid by tourism. Florida does not tax food. If you don't spend money, you don't pay tax. The tax can be for a time certain.

There may not be a faster way to ruin the county economy and our children's job opportunities than skimping on school financing. As the November election gets closer, we'll hear a lot about how Gov. Scott and the Legislature "balanced the state budget" and still cut taxes. Be sure to ask: "Cut whose taxes?"

Florida's Constitution requires a balanced state budget. Scott balanced his with a $427.3 million hike in school property taxes. It's referred to as the "required local effort" to avoid another provision of the Constitution prohibiting the Legislature from levying an ad valorem tax. Lawmakers simply set the rate of the required local effort and require county school boards to levy it, if they want "matching dollars" from the state. This places the burden on property owning taxpayers.

I have heard that one way to save district dollars is to privatize services. But then, what happens to our employees? Is it not our responsibility to respect and appreciate their work and loyalty? Have we seen the results from other school districts who have entered into privatization?

Sales taxes are popular - many counties and school districts have already reduced their debt by putting a sales tax referendum on the ballot and having the voters approve it. Is this community ready to support its' schools?

Now it is time for this board to move forward and stand up for our students and staff and the taxpaying property owners, get the referendum on the ballot and let the taxpayers decide.

Mary Fischer is vice chair of the Lee County School Board.

 
 

 

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