County Commission votes in favor of MSTU for beach renourishment

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On Dec. 18, 2018, the St. Johns County Board of County Commissioners voted 3-2 in favor of enacting a Municipal Service Taxing Unit (MSTU) to help fund a beach renourishment project in Ponte Vedra Beach. 

Although the MSTU passed, it is unclear whether it will represent the sole funding for Phase I of the project, however.

Those in favor of the MSTU hope it will represent the first steps toward levying the estimated $1.2 million to fund Phase I of the project to renourish nine miles of beaches from the Duval County line to the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve. The MSTU would raise any additional money for the project by taxing private parcels east of Ponte Vedra Boulevard.  

Now that the MSTU has been established, the county can begin to develop an idea of where the project is headed and which other options for funding might be available. With that in mind, the county is looking to source funding from alternative means — which may cover the cost before the MSTU is needed. As presented in the Dec. 18 hearing, additional funding sources might include the Tourist Development Tax (TDT) reserves or redistribution, as well as possible state and federal grants.

Utilizing the TDT reserves will call for an additional vote of majority-plus-one from the board, which hasn’t been decided. According to St. Johns County Public Works Director Neal Shinkre, the unencumbered tax reserves from the 2019 fiscal year might be allocated to the project if the board chooses to vote in favor of it. The reserves total about $700,000 available.

Shinkre said grants from the state have already been submitted and that decision is expected to be resolved by April, with potential funding available in July. A Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) grant could cover up to 50 percent of costs. In other words, the FDEP would contribute $600,000 of the 1.2 million in matching funds available for Phase I of the project. 

Lastly, county officials said the TDT could also be used to implement a redistribution or reassignment of funding toward the project. Although this funding source is available, the likelihood of passing a supermajority vote for it doesn’t fare as well as the other funding sources. This is partly due to the fact that not only is a supermajority vote needed, but the TDT is a Florida statute driven enterprise that has narrow definitions within its funding categories. Redistribution remains an option that will be considered, however. 

 As discussed in the hearing, the MSTU wouldn’t pay for the beach renourishment program directly. A transfer of $1 million from the county’s General Fund has been already taken to start paying for Phase I of the project immediately. The initial phase includes funding for permitting, studies and development of a renourishment program plan. The MSTU would be expected to pay the fund back in conjunction with the grants and TDT options if they are levied but don’t cover the full cost. In September, after all funding potential has been considered, the board will reconvene to pass the budget. Depending on the results, in October, the property appraiser would start collecting the tax.

As of now, the process and budget for Phase II of the project is murky. Phase I will be tasked with defining the “conceptual” outlines of the project before laying any groundwork. Although the county is looking at the budget and design of other similar projects already underway, Phase I will be essential to laying the framework for the actual construction of the project. 

At the conception of the MSTU, properties were surveyed in the area. These results showed a positive response toward the implementation of the MSTU. Of the 65.2 percent of responses received, 92.1 percent were in favor of its creation. 

Not all county commission board members agreed with the tax, however. 

“We looked at the map and saw some very large tracts that were not desirous to be involved in it,” Commissioner Jeb Smith of District 2 said at the hearing. “Normally I would be very, very supportive of a self-imposed tax, if that’s something that someone wants to impose on themselves. However, when someone doesn’t want to participate, I have a tremendous amount of apprehension.” 

In contrast to Smith, the new District 4 Commissioner, Jeremiah Blocker, came out strongly in favor of the MSTU and has been advocating its implementation since taking office.

“The objective is that we want to get our beaches in great shape so everyone in the county can enjoy those beaches,” Blocker told the Recorder. “This is not just for the people that live on the beach, it’s for everyone and every part of the county. It’s also for those that visit here. They should be able to use the beaches as well. (The MSTU) is going to benefit the whole county. The key is now to start laying the groundwork for Phase II and taking the long view on improving those beaches.”

Phase II of construction is projected to take place in mid to late 2020. 

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