Palm Beach County sales tax rate to rise to 7 percent

Palm Beach County’s sales tax rate will rise to 7 percent next year after voters approved an increase to send more money to the county’s public schools and municipal governments.

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The sales tax hike — from 6 percent to 7 percent — will last a decade and is expected to generate an extra $2.7 billion for fixing schools, roads and bridges and covering new construction projects and technology purchases.

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Years in the making, the referendum was brought to voters by the county commission and county school board, with support from several major business groups and public-sector unions and little organized opposition.

Government leaders argued the tax increase was necessary to fix a backlog of problems that began to pile up during the Great Recession. Much money is also slated to go to new projects that governments say they can’t afford within their existing budgets.

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The referendum’s passage was greeted by government leaders with gratitude and vows that they would be good stewards of the money.

“I’m very happy that the community has stepped up in support of public schools,” Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa said. “The need is real.”

County Administrator Verdenia Baker said that the results showed that county residents understood the need to invest in key county assets.

“We need to maintain our infrastructure, maintain our way of life,” she said. “We will be a good steward of the taxpayers’ dollars.”

Half of the money — $1.3 billion — will go to the school district, which says the vast majority would be used to repair and upgrade school campuses.

The other half will be split between the county government and the county’s 39 cities and towns. The county will take 30 percent and the municipalities would split the other 20 percent based on their respective populations.

The county government plans to spend its share — $810 million — largely to tackle a backlog of needed repairs to roads, bridges, government buildings and other facilities.

But, like the school district, the county government also plans new projects, including new parks, buildings, streetlights, sidewalks, sheriff’s office substations and a homeless shelter.

The county’s 39 municipalities will spend their $540 million on a mix of infrastructure projects, with each city determining how to spend its share.

The proposal stirred opposition among some voters, many of whom criticized it for being regressive, meaning it affects the poor at a disproportionate rate.

But it faced no organized opposition. The tax increase was officially backed by government worker unions and prominent business groups, including the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, which says it spent nearly $250,000 promoting it.

The sales tax hike will last for a maximum of 10 years. But it could expire sooner if the $2.7 billion target is reached more quickly than expected, something that could happen if sales in the county exceed projections over the next decade.

Avossa said that while he was pleased to see voters endorse greater investment in the county’s public schools, he said the fact that nearly 44 percent of voters opposed it showed that there is too little public confidence in the school district’s spending.

“There’s still a lot of people that need to see better value in their investment in the public schools,” he said.

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