St. Johns County commission chair considering referendum for sales tax increase

Announcement came ahead of passionate public commentary during commission workshop addressing county’s rapid growth

The St. Johns County Board of County Commissioners could consider a referendum for a sales tax increase from 6.5 cents to 7.5 cents, commission Chair Henry Dean said Tuesday.

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – The St. Johns County Board of County Commissioners could consider a referendum for a sales tax increase from 6.5 cents to 7.5 cents, commission Chair Henry Dean said Tuesday.

Dean made the announcement on “The Morning Show,” saying he had thought about that option but had not talked about it publicly or discussed it with the commission.

“We can put on the ballot a referendum where the voters can vote up or down — yes or no — on an increase in the sales tax,” Dean said.

Henry Dean, chairman of the St. Johns County Board of County Commissioners, joins us to dig into the dramatic growth of St. Johns County and its impact on the people who live there.

The disclosure came ahead of a commission workshop Tuesday morning addressing the county’s rapid growth.

St. Johns County resident Steve Lacy said that may be the only option.

“Nobody wants to pay more taxes, but frankly I don’t know how we’re going to be able to afford it,” Lacy said.

According to the 2020 census, between 2010 and 2020, St. Johns County grew by nearly 44%. It is one of the fastest-growing counties in the U.S. and the second-fastest growing county in Florida.

RELATED: St. Johns County plans to add 120 portable classrooms next school year as growth continues | This northwest St. Johns County development will be home to the district’s next new school

As Tuesday’s presentation from the commission got underway, commissioners reiterated the growth in the number of people and approved developments. But one of the biggest takeaways from the presentation was that there are 13 deficient county roads in St. Johns County — which would cost the county around $155 million to fix.

Dozens of St. Johns County residents spoke out during public commentary, saying there are a number of reasons why growth needs to slow down.

“Perhaps the vast majority of St. Johns County residents don’t want to see a lot more development, especially at the rapidity we have seen,” said one woman, followed by a round of applause.

Several people talked about the increase in traffic, there not being enough parks and also how they said the development has an impact on their quality of life.

“I urge you to resolve existing infrastructure problems, especially the traffic, before they give further development,” said St. Johns County resident Doris Taylor.

St. Johns County resident Mark Genezier said: “Traffic is everywhere. It’s really changed the complexion of our community.”

Genezier and his wife protested outside the County Auditorium building. As veterinarians, they said the tree removal to make way for development is harming animals.

“We’ve seen the trajectory of what development does both to the local wildlife and we’ve seen what it does to the surroundings,” Genezier said. “If you drive down some of those roads in the county, what used to be forests and woods are now clear cut where they just come in and everything on the property is taken to the ground.”

Speakers inside the auditorium also called for the commission to protect the county’s green spaces.

“Please don’t underestimate how urgently your constituents want to see you slow down our county’s growth,” said one St. Johns County resident who spoke. “We see rural and agricultural land being converted to residential and commercial at an alarming rate.”

The St. Johns County Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday heard from residents about problems that they say the county’s growth is causing.

Another growth problem is the pace at which the county is hiring new employees and keeping them. A fast-growing county also needs fast-growing law enforcement, transportation, schools, health services, infrastructure and other services. Several of the speakers placed the blame for the backlog of growth management on the county’s commissioners, accusing the leaders of recklessly green-lighting development projects without keeping pace with all that growth.

“I encourage St. Johns County Growth Management to become proactive rather than reactive. I also encourage this department to work holistically with other departments so that a common vision for the county converges,” said Carol Anderson, with North Beach Community Alliance.

It also came out at the workshop that the commission has already approved more development.

Last year, the county approved permits for 820 single-family homes. That’s said to be a record for the building department’s whole history, and the county keeps growing. In December, the Silverleaf community was approved for an expansion that would add 2,394 acres and up to 5,600 more housing units. There’s also Grand Cypress, a development going up on the bestbet gambling spot.

Commissioner Ray Blocker also said during the workshop that the county should consider restructuring the commission itself, expanding the five-member panel to better fit a growing county.

A couple of St. Johns County residents also pointed out that the surrounding six counties are also seeing significant growth — it’s just that St. Johns County was growing the fastest. They said figuring out a solution only in St. Johns County won’t solve anything and called for the commissioners to work with the leaders in those other counties on a bigger-picture strategy for growth management.

No decisions were made by the commission on Tuesday.

About the Authors:

Ashley Harding joined the Channel 4 news team in March 2013 and reports every weekday for The Morning Show.

Joe covers education and breaking news. He is a frequent contributor to the News4Jax I-team and Trust Index coverage.