Proposed St. Johns sales tax hike draws debate

ST. AUGUTSTINE, Fla – St. Johns County residents got a better idea Tuesday of how a one-cent sales tax increase would be spent, and county commissioners heard from citizens on the plan, which had a lot of people fired up.

Supporting commissioners say growth in the county is tremendous and the sales tax increase is needed to help support that growth. A list of items that could be cut from the budget if new revenue is not raised were also presented at the afternoon meeting, which drew protests from citizens about the possible tax hike.

The measure, approved 3-2 by St. Johns County commissioners last month, would put the the tax hike question to voters in November.

St. Johns County 10-year sales surtax to fund countywide public infrastructure and improvements:

The county requires revenue for road improvements, alternative transportation facilities, fire stations, law enforcement facilities, public safety vehicles, water management facilities, public recreation facilities, library improvements, and seeks up to 2% of sales surtax proceeds to fund economic development. Each project shall be subject to appointed citizen board review. Shall a 1 cent per dollar sales surtax be levied for 10 years on taxable transactions occurring within St. Johns Co., effective on January 1, 2016?

______ For the one cent sales tax
______ Against the one cent sales tax

The current sales tax in St. Johns county is 6 percent, which is only the state tax. Most counties, including Duval, Clay, Baker and Nassau counties, have a local option sales tax of one cent or more.

Commissioners are proposing raising the St. Johns County sales tax to 7 percent.

The revenue would be used for storm water facilities, libraries and construction of public facilities, including roads.

But a similar measure was defeated seven years ago by about a two-thirds vote.

Protesting Tea Party members showed up with signs Tuesday to express their opinions about the proposal.

"There's tyranny right here in St. Johns County, and we're here to expose it," said Lance Thate, chairman of the St. Augustine Tea Party.

Dave Heimbold, media director of the St. Augustine Tea Party, said commissioners are using scare tactics to convince the community the sales tax is a good thing.

"They use it every time when they want to raise money," Heimbold said. "All they want to do is they want to scare us by saying, 'The policemen, we're going to have to fire the policemen,' or 'The kids won't be able to go on the playground with supervision' or 'They're going to shut the libraries and nobody will be able to read.'"

But County Administrator Michael Wanchick said in the next decade, the population of St. Johns County will increase by one third and revenues are not keeping up.

He said every year this is deferred, improvements get more expensive, and it gets to the point where the city won't have the resources to catch up.

Wendy Jo Williams said she supports the increase because her library would be on the chopping block.

"Our community in Hastings and Flagler Estates depends on the library," Williams said. "The kids depend on it for help with schoolwork. Other people in the community depend on it for jobs to go on the Internet and be able to find jobs."

The penny increase would generate $23.5 million for the county and $2.5 million for the city.

"The dollars generated from this do not go directly to the proposed challenges they're putting forward, which is transportation and fire fund," said Denver Cook, who opposes the increase. "It goes to the general fund, so it will not actually solve their challenges both short or long term."

Greg Dornstauder, who lives in St. Johns County, doesn't think the increase is a bad idea, saying there's one thing he hopes the revenue would go toward.

"They could is increase the lane width here on A1A where it comes from Guana from two lanes to four lanes, and it just gets on rush hour from here all the way up to Solano," Dornstauder said. "Its just a traffic jam that would be a great place for it to be applied."

The commission will decide whether or not to put the proposed sales tax increase on the ballot in a meeting on June 16 at 6 p.m. If voted through, the change would take effect Jan. 1.