Sarasota County voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum Tuesday to extend the lifespan of a supplementary school tax by another four years.
The 1-mill tax equates to homeowners paying an extra $1 for every $1,000 in taxable property. The tax was originally passed in 2002 after being rejected by voters in 2000, and this year marks the third time the referendum has been continued. The school board leaned on the extra revenue generated by the tax to carry the district’s budget through the lean years of the economic downturn, when Sarasota County lost 40% of its taxable property base.
Despite a significant reduction in turnout compared with the last time the referendum faced Sarasota County voters in 2010, the measure passed Tuesday by a wider margin, with 77% of the vote compared with 66% four years ago.
According to the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections office, 45,720 out of 273,207 registered voters participated in Tuesday’s vote — a turnout of just less than 17%.
This year’s turnout contrasts with 2010 — the last time the referendum faced voters — when 70,389 voters participated countywide for a turnout rate of about 26%.
Some area lawmakers called for the vote to be held during the upcoming November general election, which typically draws about twice as many voters as special elections.
“The key issues are the huge extra cost to the taxpayers, coupled with the low voter turnout in relation to November 2014, which will be an election for the governor, Congress and County Commission,” Sarasota County Commissioner Joe Barbetta said in October after the school board voted 5-0 to hold the election in March. The last off-presidential cycle general election Nov. 2, 2010, drew 148,307 voters countywide — more than three times the voters Tuesday.
Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent said the March 25 special election cost district taxpayers about $400,000, adding that including the measure on the ballot for the August primary or the November general election would cost the district “absolutely nothing.”
District officials, however, argued that the tax sunsets June 30 and waiting until November to hold the election would interrupt a revenue source that brings in between $40 million and $50 million a year and comprises about 12% of the district’s operating budget.
Critics of the tax claim it is used to avoid cutting teachers’ salaries — Sarasota County teachers, with an average salary of $54,576 annually, are the second-highest paid in the state behind Miami-Dade County teachers.
Proponents of the tax say it is essential to maintain Sarasota County’s high standard of education, as well as art and music programs that could be in jeopardy without the supplementary revenue.
Click here to view how Sarasota County voted.
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