Despite Wide Support, Referendum on Sales Tax Increased in Duval County Delayed

By Anthony SanFilippo

Several Duval County schools are in dire need of safety and infrastructure improvements or upgrades, and the School Board has a plan to rectify the problem.

However, in order to do it, the School Board will need to convince Jacksonville City Council and Mayor Lenny Curry to help get it across the finish line, something they have been reluctant to do. And now, it looks like the Council’s stalling will cost the school district an entire year’s worth of potential tax earnings.

That’s because the School Board is recommending a .05-cent sales surtax – or the “half-penny sales tax” to raise the needed $1.95 billion needed to repair and replace some of the oldest schools in the state of Florida.

An increase in the sales tax can only be done through a referendum on a ballot and approved by voters. However, in order to get the referendum on the ballot, the City Council has to agree to put it there.

They have not done so to this point, and it’s looking like a referendum is a very long shot for 2019.

This can be revisited in 2020, but there can be no special election for the referendum as a new state law goes into place on Jan. 1 that requires all local referendums to be part of a general election ballot, which means this wouldn’t be voted on until November, 2020 at the earliest. Additionally, a two-thirds vote requirement in the Florida state legislature during their winter 2020 session could be required just to be on that ballot.

“Voters in Tampa and Orlando passed a local tax referendum to improve schools. Closer to Duval County, Clay County and St. John’s County have similar taxes that they are using to support their schools.”

That’s left a lot of folks in Jacksonville frustrated, as there is a lot of support for the tax. A recent poll from the University of North Florida’s Public Opinion Research Lab indicated. More than 75 percent of registered voters supported the tax increase, and the support was strongly bipartisan.

Additionally, several local organizations support the tax, including the Northeast Florida Association of REALTORS®.

“With so many Duval County schools in need of repair and/or replacement, we are driving down the value of our neighborhoods and our community as a whole,” association President Jeanne Denton Scheck said in a statement. “Realtors don’t just sell houses; we sell communities. Just like the house in disrepair, we can’t sell a community with sub-par schools. Our ‘house’ has been neglected for too long.”

The bill to place the referendum on the ballot was stopped in the City Council Rules Committee in June and remained stuck in committee in July.

The quality of a school is paramount for individuals and especially families who are looking to buy a home. With nearly 30 percent of the schools in Duval County being identified as being in poor or very poor conditions, many potential homebuyers are skipping Duval for neighboring communities rather than risking sending their kids to outdated schools that are in need of significant repairs and lacking in safety and security.

In addition to losing those families, the condition of the schools can have an adverse effect on neighborhoods.

With so many Duval County Schools in need of repair or replacement, the value of the neighborhoods and the community is rapidly decreasing.

Many view the half-penny sales tax as the best revenue source for facilities because it’s shared by everyone in the county, not just existing property owners. Tourists and those who are transient through the county would account for approximately 30 percent of the revenue created.

Most importantly, money from this tax increase, which includes a term-limit of 15 years, can only be spent on construction, maintenance, repairs and technology of the school buildings and cannot be used by the school district for any other expenses, like salaries.

The students in the Duval County Schools would benefit the most from quality upgrade: technology upgrades would optimize learning, creating a more comfortable yet academically rich environment that will help them grow both inside and out of the classroom. Improvements would also allow the schools to maximize security and safety, a greater requirement in a more unpredictable society.

BENEFITS FOR RESIDENTS WITHOUT SCHOOL-AGE CHILDREN

Public education impacts everyone. A community with better public education leads to higher-paying jobs, increased property values, and a healthy economy.

New and improved school buildings can directly affect the community around it by making neighborhoods more desirable for both current and future residents, while sending a positive message to future businesses that Jacksonville values education.

To ensure the money is being used for what it would be designed for, the management of the tax dollars will be monitored by the creation of a Citizen Oversight Committee tasked with reviewing spending, progress and project management.

The members of this committee will manage the money, have access to all records for review, and ensure it is being spent as promised.

The members of this committee will be independent in that they will not be employed by the school district nor will they benefit financially from any of the proposed projects.

NOT THAT TAXING

A half-penny tax will cost the typical Duval County family approximately $5.60 per month, or roughly $67 annually, an approximation based on IRS sales tax tables with the Duval County median annual income.

The tax would expire at the end of 2034 unless voters elected to renew the tax at some point prior to its expiration.

ALTERNATIVES DON’T WORK WELL ENOUGH

Opponents to the half-penny tax have suggested impact fees or money generated from the Florida lottery as sufficient funding sources to help the schools.

However, impact fees can only be used in schools where future development would have an impact on expected school enrollment. Many of the schools that are in the direst of conditions aren’t located in areas where development is occurring and most long-term development in Jacksonville has already been approved through city processes. Impact fees could not be assigned to those projects either because they don’t qualify, or they cannot receive impact fees funding retroactively.

As for the lottery, although the district does receive some money from it, it’s still a relatively small portion of the total budget, and most of the money is mandated by the state to be used for specific programs.

As such, this money is not available for things like maintenance, renovation or construction, all things that are desperately needed in Duval County.

WHAT ABOUT BONDS?

Duval Schools have issued bonds previously to pay off the debt incurred with Waterleaf Elementary School and Atlantic Coast High School. Both schools are ageing, and the School District is still paying off that debt.

Bonds also need a predictable source of revenue to back them, which is highly unlikely today with state funding sources either being volatile or drying up entirely.

However, Bonds aren’t out of the question if the money comes from this proposed, voluntary half-penny tax. That’s because the predictable revenue will enable the district to issue bonds and accelerate work on the highest priority school projects.

OTHER DISTRICTS ARE DOING THIS TOO

Voters in Tampa and Orlando passed a local tax referendum to improve schools. Closer to Duval County, Clay County and St. John’s County have similar taxes that they are using to support their schools.

It makes a lot of sense for Duval County to be the next county to follow suit. It makes sense schools in need would use a successful formula from around the state to improve them.

A failure to secure this new funding stream paints a bleak picture of children going to school in deteriorating school buildings that lack adequate infrastructure and safety.

There’s a pattern that usually follows schools that don’t have the funding to maintain their upkeep – closure.

And that would be the deepest cut of all for a school district that has already endured more than enough adversity.


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