Spurred on by the sobering fiscal picture presented at last week’s county budget hearings, a group of Ponte Vedra Beach residents is advocating for a one-cent increase in the St. Johns County sales tax to stave off what they say is a looming financial crisis.
At Monday’s meeting of the Ponte Vedra Beaches Coalition, residents Lisa Cook, Victoria Corlazzoli and Mary Kohnke updated attendees on the county’s preliminary budget hearings held May 17-19. After listening to three days of presentations from various county departments, the residents said it’s clear that years of drawing down county reserves to balance the budget after the recession has left St. Johns County in a precarious financial position.
“Last year, we borrowed $7 million from the reserve fund and they purposefully wrote up the (FY18) budget without borrowing from the reserve fund,” said Cook, who was elected as the coalition’s new president at the meeting. “We need other forms of revenue.”
Kohnke, a former county commissioner, agreed. “Over the years, we have paid for our problems out of reserves,” she said. “We just can’t do that anymore.”
A perfect storm
In their presentation to attendees, Cook and Corlazzoli noted that since 2008, when the St. Johns County millage rate was decreased from 7.045 to 6.0991, the county has lost a total of $118 million in revenue. One result of that lost revenue has been the accumulation of a backlog of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance and capital projects across the county.
At the same time, the county administrator’s budget hearing workbook – available online at http://www.sjcfl.us/OMB/media/FY2018AdminHearings.pdf – notes that since 2006, the population of St. Johns County has increased 37 percent to 226,360, requiring the county to provide services to more people with less money.
Further complicating the county funding picture is the state legislature’s recent efforts to put a measure on the ballot that would increase the homestead exemption to $75,000 – a move that, if passed, would reduce St. Johns County revenues by an estimated $10 million.
Add in the millions of dollars in clean-up and restoration costs associated with Hurricane Matthew, sales tax increase advocates say, and St. Johns County is facing a perfect budget storm that needs to be addressed now.
Sales tax increase
Cook said she and other residents are advocating for a one cent sales tax increase instead of a property tax increase because they believe it would be a less painful way to generate additional revenue for county services.
“We are liking the sales tax, because in theory one-third or more of the sales tax revenues are actually paid by non-residents,” said Cook, who has launched the website www.stjohnscountysalestax.org to offer information on the proposal. “Also, while the majority of sales tax (revenue) goes to the state, this penny raise would go directly to the county. That would be all of our money for capital projects.”
Attendees at Monday’s coalition meeting seemed to agree that a sales tax increase was needed. Resident Doug Worth noted that St. Johns County residents enjoyed one of lowest total tax burdens in the state of Florida – a fact that Corlazzoli said has compounded the county’s fiscal woes.
“We’ve enjoyed the luxury for long enough,” she said, “and now it’s time to pay the piper.”
Sales tax increase proponents say they plan to launch a two-pronged campaign. The first step would involve convincing three of the five members of the Board of County Commissioners to schedule a special election this year and put a one-cent sales tax increase on the ballot. Once that is achieved, they said, they will focus on making the case for the increase to county voters.
County Commissioner Jay Morris, who attended Monday’s meeting, noted that efforts in 2015 to put a half-cent sales tax increase on the ballot were stymied when three of the five commissioners voted not to put the matter on the ballot
“So, you had three people deny 170,000 registered voters the right to vote and it never got on the ballot,” Morris said. “I said right then, ‘If we don’t do something, we are now starting to paint ourselves in a corner and this county will be bankrupt by 2020 or 2021.’”
Morris – who has already announced he will not be running for another term on the Board of County Commissioners – has repeatedly stated that St. Johns County is facing a future that is “not financially viable.” Getting a sales tax increase on the ballot in a special election and passed this year, he said, may be one of the few options remaining to avert financial disaster.
“If not, you can turn out the lights, you can shut the door, and you can give the keys to Tallahassee,” Morris said. “This place is going under.”