Deborah Wheeler | 315-4432 | @WaltonSunDeb |
“I went to the first South Walton incorporation meeting and listened to the presentation and took their handout,”said local attorney Dana Matthews. “But when I left, I said, ‘This doesn’t add up.’ ” Matthews educated himself on what was being proposed by comparing it to Destin.
“Destin has 8.15 square miles. Incorporating 76 square miles into a city is a very ambitious project. No one has ever started with 76 square miles,” he said. “And 44 percent of that is in state forest. It’s pretty ambitious to start with nine times the size of Destin.”
In addition to square miles, Matthews said another problem is population.
“There are certain criteria you must meet under state statute to incorporate,” Matthews said. “There is a density you must meet. This proposed city doesn’t meet constitutional criteria for the number of people a city is supposed to have. It doesn’t have half what it is supposed to.
“Density under state law requires 1.5 persons per acre, but the proposal states there are .49 persons per acre,” he added. “They say they will get waiver, but that’s pretty tough.”
The third thing Matthews has a problem with is taxes. He believes that more likely than not the new city would be required to immediately levy additional taxes up to 2.5 mills, an approximate 50 percent increase over existing county millage.
“Every city runs on taxes, ad valorem, excise taxes, city or business taxes. Walton County doesn’t have a business or use tax. So local government is limited in what they can generate,” he said. “No city operates without taxes. It takes an extraordinary amount of money to run a city.
“No matter what they say, it’s going to take higher taxes to run it,” Matthews said. “Every city in America runs off ad valorem. We will need millions to run. There will be no police, no fire, no government offices. You will have to create them and pay for it.”
However, South Walton Fire Chief Rick Talbert disputes this.
“The South Walton Fire District is an independent taxing district that was promulgated by the state legislature in the early 1990s. As a result, should South Walton in its entirety or a portion of it incorporate, our protection and service level that encompasses 84 square miles would remain unchanged,” Talbert said. “However, if said incorporated area desired additional services or want to create their own public safety component and infrastructure, there would be additional costs, of course.”
Matthews said the new city’s initial revenue of $8.7 million is to come from the county via tax sharing. The county would lose this revenue but still have to provide services.
The current WCSO budget without jail and animal control is $24.8 million split 50/50 between the north and south. This is $12 million that is not accounted for in the proposal, he said.
Matthews noted that the proposed charter does not provide for the provision of any new services. “It’s proposed that all major services will be handled by inter-local agreement with the county, which would cost money,” Matthews said. “The only service that would be provided by the new city would be a planning department and code enforcement.”
The Sun reached out to Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson about providing services and he said, “The short answer is that the sheriff’s office has a statutory responsibility to provide protection for its citizens regardless of whether or not there is a city. What level of service and how it is paid for would have to be determined.”
Matthews went on to say South Walton would spend 43 percent of its budget for human resources or services contracted out. “As for resorts and developments such as Sandestin that are under DRIs, a city won’t get a dime from them,” he said. “A city would have no authority there. There are so many holes in this that they couldn’t sell the wrapper. The handouts they distribute are nothing more than swag. Destin wanted to go back after they did it. Are we going to trade a known variable for an unknown?
“This is a bad idea. People are just mad at development and developers,” Matthews added. “What is the benefit? None. What will a city do for humans? I don’t need a planning department. I don’t’ need a code. I don’t need a building department. Does cost equal benefit? Not a well thought out plan. The first study said it wouldn’t work. They only included Miramar Beach because their numbers are swag. It’s about numbers.”
Matthews’ advice is to spend time and effort working with officials and policy makers, then go to ballot box. “We represent 82 percent of the tax base,” he said.
Matthews has lived in South Walton since the fall of 1984. The group Our Walton County’s website is www.ourwaltoncounty.com and they are on Facebook. “We are hoping to share thoughts there,” said Matthews. “We want to get the other perspective out there.”