Local News

Should Highlands County let local gas taxes expire next year?

SEBRING - Two local taxes motorists pay every time they gas up are due to expire Dec. 31, 2014 but some county commissioners are in favor of renewing these surcharges, saying they are vital for road repair and construction.

The 5-cent local option gas tax, levied only on gasoline, is expected to bring in $1.5 million this fiscal year.

The one-cent county gas tax (also called the ninth cent tax and mandatory on diesel fuel as per state law) is estimated to bring in about half-a million this fiscal year and is the second of three local taxes Highlands County drivers pay on motor fuel, and in some cases, diesel.

Highlands County tea party president Jack Nelson, a conservative, said while letting the taxes sunset would technically make gas in Highlands County cheaper by 6 cents a gallon, the county also has to pay its bills.

"I'm in favor of reinstating the tax," he said. "It would be nice to have cheaper gas.but people have to understand that the county has to function."

The revenues collected through these taxes have to go to road maintenance and operation, said the county's Senior Budget Manager Tim Mechling.

"It pays for the operational cost of maintaining the roads," he said.

The state collects the money and passes it to the county, which shares some of the revenue with local municipalities, Mechling said.

A third local option gas tax, which is 6 cents a gallon and also levied on diesel, will sunset Aug. 1, 2016. It is expected to bring $2.4 million this fiscal year.

Mechling said the county "relies heavily" on these taxes.

"It is an important revenue source for the county," he said. The way the county is structured, should these taxes expire, Highlands County either will have to reduce services or personnel or dip into its general fund to replace the lost funds, Mechling said.

County Commissioner Don Elwell said while he is in favor of renewing the taxes he is open to listening to citizens before making a decision.

Commissioner Jack Richie also is in favor of renewing the taxes.

Mechling said the county commission will consider the issue in the next six months or so.

Local motorists pay 12 cents a gallon in the three local taxes, along with federal and state gasoline taxes, which all add up to roughly 50 cents a gallon while fueling up gasoline in Highlands County, and more if it is diesel.

While Nelson feels the local gas taxes are a small portion of the taxes drivers pay in total while fueling, Rebecca Phillips would like some kind of a break.

"Everything in Highlands County goes up but wages, we need some kind of a break," she said.

Dennis Hawki Ouellette is in favor of letting the taxes expire, but Susan Lambert-Mirasky feels gas in Highlands County is already cheaper than surrounding areas.

Should Highlands County drivers have to pay 6 cents less in a gallon of gas, there is a technical possibility we could have some of the cheaper gas in the state, based on gas prices reported Monday on Floridagasprices.com.

According to the web site, where people report prices they see at the pump, Pensacola and Tallahassee had the lowest gas prices for a gallon of unleaded fuel -- from $3.05 a gallon to $3.15 a gallon Monday. Avon Park's average was $3.20 a gallon; Sebring was higher at $3.28.

Whether dropping a gas tax would technically reduce the price at the pump is not a given since gas prices can fluctuate for various reasons.

Ray Napper, for instance, said "what you reduce has always been put right back on as a price increase by the supplier. It's called window pricing."