Judge: Clay Commission can decide when half-cent tax vote goes to ballot

GREEN COVE SPRINGS, Fla. – After reviewing a petition to place a half-cent sales tax resolution on a ballot, a judge decided Thursday the Clay County Board of Commissioners can choose when the referendum will go before voters.

That means the commission does not have to place the measure on a special election ballot this November, which the Clay County School Board requested. Circuit Court Judge Wittington said the commission has the power to decide when, not if, the half-cent sales tax gets placed on the ballot for voters.

Attorneys for both sides had arguments over how the law was written and which governing entity -- the school board or the commission -- has the authority to select the election date for which the sales tax will appear on the ballot.

DOCUMENT: Clay County School Board vs. County Commission ruling

In a letter, City of Jacksonville General Counsel Jason Gabriel reacted to the judge's ruling. In his letter, he wrote: “Here, the Judge found that the county body has discretion as to when to place the matter on the ballot and further, discretion as to other potential infirmities and flaws in the school board’s resolution.”

Gabriel goes on to say his office’s binding opinion “remains in full force and effect for the Consolidated City of Jacksonville; there is nothing mandating a different conclusion in the Order.”

Clay County Chairman Mike Cella called the judge’s order a win for taxpayers in Clay County.

“We think it’s a big win for voters and taxpayers in Clay County because they don’t have to pay for a special election and it gives them time to vet the School Board's ideas for how they want to move forward with the tax,” Cella said.

News4Jax requestd comment from Clay County School Board Chair Carol Studdard, who wrote: “We are assessing our options.”

In the same week the judge ruled to let commissioners decide when the half cent sales tax is placed on the ballot, the Clay County School Board made the decision to cancel class for one day over malfunctioning air conditioning in one of their elementary schools.

Addision Davis, the Clay County School District superintendent, wrote: “While other parts of the school-maintained air conditioning the rest of the day, it was not at full capacity […] I understand that students and staff experienced uncomfortable conditions during school today due to the two unexpected outages that occurred.”

The Clay County School District sent News4Jax pictures inside Clay County schools showing rusted lockers, broken water fountains and aging HVAC systems inside schools.

News4Jax asked Cella what he thought about the AC issues Oakleaf experienced just days before school.

“The bottom line is, yeah, they had some problems, but they obviously had some money to deal with it because they got that fixed," Cella said. "They’ve got about $100 million more in their budget than we do, and I’m sure they will be able to find some money to take them forward."

Cella said the commission plans to put the referendum on the ballot in November 2020, which he feels gives the School Board more time to share its plan for the dollars raised with the tax.

The School Board would use the tax revenue to repair aging schools in the district and build new schools to account for the number of students expected to enter the school system over the next several years. The tax would span 30 years, bringing in more than $13 million annually.

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