In Okaloosa County's Tuesday Primary there was one county wide referendum on the ballot. The measure asked voters for an extension of temporary economic development property tax exemptions to businesses that create new jobs in the area.
The county referendum passed with a wide margin on election night with 75 % of those casting ballots in favor of it. That’s a total of 18,579 votes and voices saying yes to the incentive that could help draw new businesses.
Okaloosa County Commission Chair Kelly Windes says the board voted unanimously to put the referendum on the ballot, seeing it as a great step to enhancing economic development in the county, " Most people that I’ve talked to are interested in it and support it. It would just give us at least an equal advantage and maybe a better advantage on some of the areas that don’t pass it. I think it’s the right thing to do myself."
It also passed in several municipalities including Ft. Walton Beach and Destin. The current incentive expires in March 2015 and the approval renews the exemptions of property taxes for businesses that meet the criteria for new construction. Commissioner Windes says it is at the discretion of the board to decide what percentage is permitted and for what length of time, " Now as long as I’ve been on the board every case that we’ve considered has been a hundred percent. We do have that latitude to say well you know we’re going to give a lesser amount, but I haven’t seen it done yet. And, it could be a less amount of time too. It doesn’t have to be 10 years. It could be five or seven or whatever, but it’s been the appetite you might say of the board to give the full benefits so far."
The Economic Development Ad Valorem Tax Exemption was initially proposed by the Economic Development Council to the County Commissioners for placement on the ballot. The tax exemption program has been on the ballot several times over the years stretching back to when it was originally approved in 1981. Windes says the cost of the referendum is not a lot and the benefits in the long run are substantial, "Instead of relocating in Walton County or Santa Rosa County or Escambia or Bay, they might choose to come to Okaloosa County because we’ve all got a lot of the same geographical advantages. We’ve all got pretty beaches, good fishing, good waters, and plenty of generally speaking real estate that’s available. So what we try to do is create some incentive that will that might get us over the top to bring the jobs and the companies. "
Catching up with Commissioner Windes at the Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections Office on Election night, after the referendum passed, he said he was pleased that it did so well and feels that the voters made the right decision for the county, "It will just give us more of a competitive edge against the competition on both sides of us. So it’s all good."
The temporary tax exemptions must be approved by residents every 10 years. Within the last decade, four companies have taken advantage of the incentive including Bit-Wizards, a software developing company in Ft. Walton Beach, North Okaloosa Medical Center, L-3 Crestview Aerospace, and Advance Sawmill Machinery in Holt bringing in $34.5 million to the county while also creating 402 high-wage jobs.
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