The Board of County Commissioners acted properly when it unanimously agreed Tuesday night not to approve the Clay County School District’s request to decide a half-cent discretionary sales tax referendum with a special election.
It also acted properly last month when it refused to consider the sheriff’s office request to raise its annual budget by $10.2 million.
And they did both for the right reasons.
Nobody is arguing whether the schools or sheriff’s office need more money, and we’re certainly not saying they had bad intentions. But both forgot the first step is to gain public trust and support. That can’t be done in a 20-minute PowerPoint presentation or a couple pages of supporting documents.
By skipping the painstaking process of educating the public, both lost valuable time and, perhaps, some early support. Both now have to regroup and win the public’s support with a deliberate approach that not only answers questions but buttresses their needs with facts.
Once the public’s on board, the BCC will likely follow.
Nobody wants to pay more taxes. At the same time, nobody wants our schools to be in disarray or our streets left unprotected. But if there’s a need, spell it out. When you build a home, you negotiate the smallest details. Imagine being told your kitchen cabinets will cost $5,000 and you aren’t given the opportunity to shop and compare.
Running county government should be no different.
The school board clearly faces challenges. That’s why it hopes to raise more than $300 million during the next 10 years with the tax. R.M. Patterson Elementary is at capacity. Orange Park Elementary is about to start its 92nd year. There currently are more than 900 portable classrooms in use. (Only Miami-Dade and Orange counties have more.) The track at Orange Park High is dangerously and embarrassingly dilapidated. The board said it also needs to build permanent classrooms, upgrade security and enhance classroom technology.
With 42 schools in the county and a need for as many as seven new schools in the next 10 years, the board said it desperately needs the money to keep pace – especially with statistics that show Clay soon will be the fastest-growing county in the state.
The school board put a rush-job on the referendum after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 5 to eliminate special elections for tax increases on Dec. 31. If the school board can’t put its request for a half-cent sales tax in front of the voters before then, it will have to wait until the general election in 2020.
Commissioners, however, wanted more details. They also didn’t like how the school board tried get ahead of HB5.
“We all want better schools and that’s why we have to do this right,” BCC Chairman Mike Cella said. “That’s why there is too much at stake this time to rush things through. Honest mistakes have been made and that delayed things. and the rush creates errors and inconsistencies so what I’d like to propose to the board is that we send this back to the school board and tell them to work on the resolution. Refine the pitch. Refine the ideas of where the money is going to be spent.
“Give us a plan that everyone can believe in so that we can all get behind it.”
Remember when your teacher required you to show your work on a math test? It still applies.
The same goes for the sheriff’s office. It asked 17% increase compared to this year’s budget, saying it needed 29 new deputies and another 32 fulltime employees. But the request had very few details how the entire $68 million request would be spent.
And according to sheriff’s office spokesman Chris Padgett, Sheriff Darryl Daniels “doesn’t have a lot of intent to negotiate at all.”
Commissioners are concerned the sheriff’s increase would have to be funded by raising the millage rate by a point. To get that, residents must be assured their money is being spent wisely, and that only comes when the agency provides details. Public accountability and transparency will be a necessary if the sheriff’s office wants to close the deal.
As Clay County grows, so does its needs. And those needs cost money.
Nobody’s denying the school board and sheriff’s office face significant financial challenges, and nobody is saying they don’t deserve the money.
But now it’s up to both to thoroughly present their cases to the public. It’s an important first step that was forgotten.