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SJC approves putting half-cent sales tax on ballot

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ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – St. Johns County commissioners voted 4-1 Tuesday morning to put a referendum on the Nov. 3 ballot asking voters to approve a half-cent sales tax to fund schools.

If passed by voters, the sales tax for school funding would be in effect for 10 years and generate an estimated $13 million a year.

St. Johns County currently has a 6 percent sales tax. Most counties in the metro Jacksonville area have a 7 percent sales tax.

"I'm quite happy. Yes, I am. Now we have the hard work of helping our public understand why they need to go vote on Nov. 3 and why they need to vote yes," St. Johns County School Board Chair Beverly Slough said. "Things are what they are and it's our obligation to provide for the very best education for our children and that includes having permanent seats for them and not putting them in relocatable classrooms."

Breakdown of votes:

James JohnsYes
Jeb SmithNo
Bill McClureYes
Jay MorrisYes
Rachael BennettYes

The commission vote was taken after more than two hours of public input, with most voters speaking against the tax increase.

"It's time to represent the people. There is a conflict of interest here," said Lance Thate, chairman of the the St. Augustine Tea Party.

"From the 1950s on our government made a priority of education and I feel as though sometimes it seems to disappear," another resident lamented to the commission.

The county is the state's top-ranked school district, which means plenty of people want to live there and send their kids to schools there. This means the county needs to build more schools and improve the ones it already has.

A population boom in the county led to three new schools opening at capacity.
District and board officials said they need more funding to cover the cost of growth in St. Johns County. They've lost out on money after the Florida Legislature passed lower property tax rates.

Additional revenue would also allow for upgrades in technology and improved security in schools, school district officials said.

Thate said a tax is not the answer.

"I'm disappointed, but not totally surprised," Thate said. "We are going to have to get the word on the streets, knock on doors. We'll be knocking on Democrat doors and Republican doors, because this is an issue that is bipartisan."

Tea party members also expressed some concern about the timing of the vote and voter turnout.

Because the referendum would likely be the only thing before voters in November, it would be a special election and would cost taxpayers up to $200,000.