The Florida Legislature has voided a 75% tax increase on new businesses imposed by three newly elected Sumter County commissioners, and public outcry has thwarted their push to raise the fire tax cap on homeowners by 300%.

But commissioners Craig Estep, Oren Miller and Gary Search are doubling down on their tax-and-spend philosophy, hoping a consultant can help them find additional fees to levy on county taxpayers.

The board is set to vote tonight on the first step in the new tax scheme, a $46,495 impact fee study that comes on the heels of $30,000 just spent on the trio’s failed attempt to raise the fire tax cap.

Two-thirds of voters would then need to approve any impact fee hikes greater than 12.5% annually — a level that Estep, Miller and Search have championed — under a new bill expected to become law by July 1.

None of the three returned requests for comment on Monday.

Although Miller and Search have previously run on Democratic tickets, the trio campaigned for the Sumter County commission as Republicans on a promise to roll back the property tax rate.

Yet, since taking office, their agenda has been dominated by the tax increases with no discussion of spending cuts.

Proponents of the Estep-Miller-Search tax increases insist that impact fees are one-offs that keep property taxes low. But economists maintain that property taxes inevitably rise when revenue from new business is driven away.

Ignored Advice

The Estep-Miller-Search bloc has ignored the advice of the county’s own economic development experts, eliciting standing-room-only rebuke from business owners, homebuyers, economists, real estate agents and Republican leadership.

“As a lifelong Republican and 17-year Villages resident, like many others, I am appalled that these new commissioners seem hell-bent on growing government at the expense of the residents and businesses in our community,” said Richard Cole, former president of the Republican Club of Sumter County and former chairman of the Sumter County Republican Party. “You can call it a ‘fee’ or call it ‘an assessment,’ but when the government is taking more of our money, it’s just another tax increase.”

Fee vs. Tax

Commissioner Doug Gilpin, who said the county’s resources should be focused on more pressing needs, agreed.

“A fee is something you call it when you don’t want to call it a tax,” he said, adding that Sumter County has resisted impact fees in the past because they hurt working families and small businesses.

Commission Chairman Garry Breeden said he feels the pulse of his constituents is against the drumbeat for more increases, especially as the region is still recovering from the effects of the pandemic.

“I don’t think our citizens want to pay additional fees for anything,” he said. “And I’m not in favor of more fees to offset ad valorem [property tax rate].”

Commissioners will meet at 7 tonight at Everglades Regional Recreation Complex and are expected to vote on the matter after a period of public comment.