Attorney general to weigh in on half-cent sales tax referendum

City lawyer: Only City Council can make call on sales tax referendum

By Jim Piggott - Reporter, Francine Frazier - Senior web producer, Corley Peel - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Despite push back from several prominent attorneys, the Duval County School Board and some City Council members, the General Counsel's Office stuck to its guns Tuesday, issuing a binding legal opinion that the City Council gets the final say in whether to put a half-cent sales tax referendum on a ballot for voters.

But on Tuesday night, the City Council unanimously agreed on an emergency motion to put the issue before Attorney General Ashley Moody.

The School Board and the City Council have been at odds over the issue since May when the board approved a half-cent sales tax referendum and voted to put the question to voters this November. The tax would raise over $1 billion over the next 25 years to fund renovations and replacements of dilapidated county schools.

The City Council balked at holding a special election this year for the referendum, arguing instead to delay the referendum until the next scheduled general election next year. School Board members are worried they can't wait that long for the funding.

The issue at the center of the debate is less about whether to put the question to voters and more about who gets to make the call for when the referendum goes on the ballot: the School Board or the City Council. 

The General Counsel's Office had issued an opinion in favor of the City Council, but three high-profile attorneys last week put out a memo arguing that the City Council can't halt the referendum once the School Board passes a resolution calling for a special election.

General Counsel Jason Gabriel stuck with his office's original call, issuing a binding legal opinion that “it is the Council, and no other body, that is authorized to place the statement approved by the School Board on the ballot as a referendum.”

"I'm happy to go to the attorney general and ask for her opinion, and we'll see what she says, and we'll live with whatever she says," Gabriel said.

The attorneys who sided with the School Board argued that the language of the statute is such that once the School Board makes its decision, the City Council is ordered to follow through with it. But Gabriel disagrees with their interpretation, saying that the language of the statute gives City Council the authority to follow through with the School Board's decision, but does not require them to do so.

"Ultimately, I believe both the council and the School Board should work together to communicate and resolve the various issues with the proposition," Gabriel said.

School Board members held a workshop Tuesday where Gabriel’s memo was discussed. Some members took issue with what he said. 

School Coard Chairwoman Lori Hersey hopes they will be able to iron out any disagreement with the Board meets with City Council in a joint meeting Wednesday at 9 a.m. in City Hall.

”I look forward to the City Council taking action and getting it on the ballot, either be voted up or down,” Hershey said. "I look forward for it getting to a place where we can make a decision.” 

Hershey said she believes its too late to get it on the ballot this November but believes December is still doable.

"We started with our goal being to have it in 2019. That is still our goal," Hershey said. "It is our goal today to address these issues sooner than later."

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