St. Johns County Commission votes to hold line on property taxes

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Citing the economic impact of COVID-19 on taxpayers, the St. Johns County Commission voted unanimously Tuesday, Sept. 8, to hold property taxes to the rolled-back rate for fiscal year 2021.

Going into the first of two budget meetings, a tentative rate of $7.25 per $1,000 of a property’s taxable value had been proposed. That would have left the rate unchanged from fiscal year 2020.

But, because property in the county has appreciated in value, it would have meant an increase in actual dollars.

Instead, the commission approved the rolled-back rate of $6.81 per $1,000 of taxable value. This marks a 3.2% decrease in the rate from last year.

The rolled-back rate generates the same level of funds as currently, accounting for a change in property values.

The final tax rate will be adopted at the second public hearing, scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Sept. 21.

If the rate remains unchanged, the owner of a home with an assessed value of $300,000 and a homestead exemption of $50,000 will pay about $1,703 in county taxes.

Also Tuesday, the commission approved the tentative budget of $1.02 billion, down from the proposed $1.07 billion. The reduction followed a half-hour recess during which the county’s Office of Management and Budget recalculated the numbers based upon the commission’s decision to consider holding taxes to the rolled-back rate.

Commission Chair Jeb Smith made the initial argument in favor of the rolled-back rate.

“The reason is because of the strain that we’ve had on our economy, the strain that we’ve had internally,” he said, citing a July unemployment rate of 7.4%, an increase from 2.5% in February.

“We have about three times as many people that are unemployed right now than we did back in January and February,” he added, saying that as property values escalate, property owners’ contributions continue to rise.

He went on to note losses suffered by the business community.

“When the private sector’s had to contract, I believe that government should, as well,” he said. “We have healthy reserves that we can go to.”

Citing county data, Smith said that in the past four years, revenues have increased on gross taxable value alone by $69.6 million.

Commissioner Paul Waldron, in his first appearance at a meeting of the board — albeit remotely — after a lengthy battle with COVID-19, voiced support for the rolled-back rate.

But Commissioner Henry Dean voiced opposition to drawing from reserves. He moved to adopt the propose tax rate of $7.25, but that motion failed on a 3-2 vote with only Commissioner Jeremiah Blocker joining Dean to support it.

In the end, Dean and Blocker joined the majority in voting for the rolled-back rate.

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