Not Just for Roads: Penny tax covers
everything from roads to more recreationBy
Roads may be Putnam County's No. 1 priority for Better
Place Plan money, but county commissioners say they are also
spending money on many things identified by residents as
That much is clear from talking to county commissioners,
staff and residents.
"There was never any kind of commitment by the county that
all the money would go to better roads," County Administrator
Rick Leary said. "I think all (commissioners) had in mind that
the bulk of the money would go to roads."
Nearly three years ago, county voters, by a margin of 55
percent to 45 percent, chose to impose an additional 1-cent
sales tax for everything from roads to more recreation,
libraries and other amenities. Four times in recent memory,
referenda for taxes to build roads in the county had
In months leading up to that vote, meetings were held to
see what residents wanted if the sales tax were levied. They
talked about economic development, recreation, natural
resources, transportation and infrastructure — things like
roads and buildings.
"Individuals came away from those sessions each with a
little different idea of what had been said and what ought to
be the primary focus," Leary said. "I think the numbers
support the fact that the county commissioners have made
transportation-related items the No. 1 priority" for Better
Place Plan money, he said.
"I don't think the commissioners rated resurfacing over
road paving over drainage matters," Leary said. "I think they
rated each of those as equal."
By adding a penny to the local sales tax, the county has
brought in $10 million since January 2003, when the tax took
effect, records show. By the end of September, that figure
should be closer to $12 million.
Of that, the county has spent $8 million on Better Place
Plan projects. County commissioners have designated another
$18 million for current or future projects. Included among
those is a new Bostwick Community Center, finishing the County
Road 309 resurfacing project from Welaka to Georgetown and
some money for the East Putnam Regional Water Project. The
majority of the money for the water project will come from
The county promised residents it would pave 50 miles of
dirt roads in five years. Commissioners have committed $14.4
million for those roads. So far the county has spent $5.3
million to pave 10.2 miles of dirt roads, county Public Works
Director Bob Merton said.
It has also resurfaced 22.1 miles of paved roads, Merton's
records show. That amounts to more than $1 million.
In addition to spending money on roads, commissioners have
spent money on some facilities.
For instance, they recently decided to spend $1.1 million
to buy the old BellSouth building on State Road 19 in Palatka
for a new emergency operations center. Two years ago, they
spent $400,000 on a mobile home park across from the
recreation complex at State Road 19 and U.S. 17 just north of
Palatka so they could build more soccer fields.
Then there's the $10,000 the county spent as its
contribution to a welcome wall in front of the same recreation
complex, Triangle Park — or the Putnam County Central Complex,
as it is formally known.
Commissioners also spent $300,000 on the new Edgar Johnson
Senior Center in Palatka.
ONE MAN'S QUEST
Many residents are angry over the county's decisions on
Better Place Plan spending, saying it should be used to pave
some nearly impassable dirt roads.
For example, Amien Joseph of Bardin went to county
commissioners Tuesday and said he does not expect his road to
be paved anytime soon. But he told them that he wants to know
how the county prioritizes its road paving.
Joseph said East Bannerville Road, where he lives, got 10
points on the county's criteria. When he checked with
commission Chairman Kevin Durscher, it turned out, East
Bannerville Road should have received 80 points. Durscher
confirmed that at the commission meeting.
"You're making decisions based on faulty data," Joseph told
Commissioner Brad Purcell said that while he appreciated
Joseph's input, he took exception to the word "faulty," saying
the word was troublesome.
ROADS VS. OTHER NEEDS
"My primary impression from the visioning sessions was the
primary goal was roads," said Merton. "But different sections
of the county said they wanted different things. Some wanted
money for facilities. But there's no question the No. 1
priority was roads, and the No. 1 priority in what we're doing
For instance, those who live on paved roads either want
more and better recreational amenities, libraries and so
forth, or they might want their road resurfaced, Merton
The vast majority of the Better Place Plan money is going
toward roads, he said. At the end of the 15-year life of the
penny sales tax, $45 million of the $65 million the tax is
estimated to generate will go to road improvements, Merton
Every time a resident approaches county commissioners at
their twice-monthly meetings about road problems,
commissioners sing the same song: They're doing the best they
can to cure the county's road ills. But they have hundreds of
millions of dollars in transportation needs that they and
citizens have identified. County officials estimate that as
much as $350 million will be raised from the penny sales tax,
along with grants, loans and private money. Commissioners say
they empathize with everyone's road needs, but they can do
only so much.
Commission Chairman Kevin Durscher said he feels for the
residents of West Putnam, particularly. He lives in
"The majority of them probely would like to see 90 percent
of the money go to roads," he said.
To put residents' complaints about road paving into
perspective, the skeptics need to look at the percentage of
money spent on transportation-related issues, Leary said.
When commissioners bought 7 acres and a mobile home park
across Carter Road from the Triangle Park, some people said it
was a waste of money that should have been spent on road
paving or resurfacing.
The county saw it as a way to buy land for more soccer
fields to serve children under 6, the age group growing
fastest in soccer participation.
More recently, when commissioners saw fit to spend more
than $1 million to buy the old BellSouth building on State
Road 19 and retrofit it for a new emergency operations center,
some people, especially those with dirt roads in Interlachen,
got mad. The current EOC next to the sheriff's office barely
meets hurricane standards.
Durscher knows roads need addressing, but he said the EOC
building purchase was valid.
"It is totally inadequate," he said of the current EOC. "Do
we like it?" Durscher asked, referring to spending $1 million
to buy a building for a new EOC. "No. Is it necessary?
Leary put Better Place Plan spending in a broader
"While money has been spent on some other items, some of
those items were items of opportunity," Leary said. "There
were needs, and we needed to address them."
In the future, residents can expect to see senior centers
in the south and west ends of the county in addition to the
one just finished in Palatka, Durscher said.
More road paving and resurfacing is also on the horizon.
Resurfacing is relatively easy to do, Durscher said. Paving
dirt roads is another matter. There are so many levels of
bureaucracy to go through, he said. One of the toughest is
gaining ownership of right-of-way, Durscher said.
The county has more than 1,200 miles of dirt roads. Not all
of them will get paved through the Better Place Plan, he
"Unfortunately, it takes a long time" to pave roads,
Durscher said. "We don't have the sophistication, to be blunt,
of say, Jacksonville. This is the biggest endeavor of its kind
this county has ever done."