County Commission considers referendum on 'sin tax' to help finance nonprofits

A tax on tobacco and alcohol could benefit Keys nonprofits, advocates say.
A tax on tobacco and alcohol could benefit Keys nonprofits, advocates say.

A local sales tax on alcohol and tobacco products could save nonprofit agencies that provide services to the working poor and medically disabled in the Florida Keys, Monroe County commissioners heard Tuesday.

A so-called sin tax could generate $10 million annually for a proposed Keys Human Services Trust, advocates said. 

"Monroe County Social Services and Monroe County not-for-profit agencies are reporting an increase in requests for assistance," says a proposal to the county. "At the same time, funding for these services is decreasing from the state and federal government, as well as private foundations."

Commissioners, gathered in Marathon for a budget meeting, were asked to authorize a nonbinding referendum on the proposal for the local general-election ballot. If voters approve, the Florida Legislature would be asked to pass a bill allowing creation of the Keys trust.

A second referendum on final details of the sales tax then would go to voters.

Kate Bauer-Jones, president of the United Way of the Florida Keys, said a survey of about 300 local voters indicated strong support for a Monroe County specialty tax on alcohol and tobacco for services that boost health care, food pantries, emergency housing, counseling and child care.

Mayor Heather Carruthers endorsed "a direct funding stream" to agencies as a way to save county money now spent on human services for other pressing projects, like planning for the effects of sea-level rise on buildings and roadways.

"We're a unique community with very unique needs," Carruthers said. "There are lots of other things on our plate we haven't even begun to understand.... This seems to be a smart thing to do."

Commissioner Danny Kolhage said he never heard of having a straw-vote referendum seeking approval to hold a referendum.

A positive vote in November could convince a Florida Legislature generally unwilling to allow local sales taxes to authorize a special levy for Monroe County, advocates said.

"It's to influence a legislature inclined to say no to give us the answer we want," Commissioner David Rice said. "It's tough to get through Tallahassee."

Commissioners gave county staff approval to return with a more detailed proposal on a possible November vote.