County commissioners deny special election for half-cent sales tax

BCC questions timing, transparency of school board’s $300 million request

By Wesley LeBlanc Staff Writer
Posted 7/10/19

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – The Board of County Commissioners denied approval the school board’s half-cent sales tax resolution, saying it was concerned about the timing of the request and a lack of …

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County commissioners deny special election for half-cent sales tax

BCC questions timing, transparency of school board’s $300 million request

Posted

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – The Board of County Commissioners denied approval the school board’s half-cent sales tax resolution, saying it was concerned about the timing of the request and a lack of transparency on how the $300 million proposal would be spent.

The Clay County School District wanted the half-cent request on the ballot during a special election. The district said it needed more than $300 million for maintenance and repairs. The district also faced a deadline created by newly-signed House Bill 5 that eliminates special elections for tax increases after Dec. 31. If the district isn’t approved for a special election in the next six months, it will have to wait until the general election in 2020.

“I move to send this resolution back to the school board to refine this and put a date for the November 2020 general election and then later, send it back to us for consideration,” BCC member Gavin Rollins said.

The BCC agreed, voting 5-0, but not before expressing concerns with the school board’s request. When the school board voted 3-2 to advance the special election request to the BCC, school board members Ashley Gilhousen and Mary Bolla both said they were in favor of the half-cent sales tax to fix county schools, but not through a special election.

“My greatest concern is that we educate the public,” Bolla said at the last school board meeting. “That way we don’t have just the concerned citizens joining us in this half-cent sales tax but as many citizens as we can educate, and if it means going to this election in November 2020 and we have the opportunity for people to see that, yes, those needs will be met with the half-cent sales tax, [then waiting a] few months to make certain that we get as many citizens on board with us means a great deal.”

The BCC shared similar sentiments, expressing while school maintenance is extremely important, transparency is even more important.

“I’ve taught in three Clay County schools,” Rollins said. “I am a Clay County teacher, so I care a lot about these schools and the children in them. But I also care deeply about transparency and the public understanding what it going on. I agree with Mary Bolla: as educators, we have a duty to educate the public and we shouldn’t thrust [this referendum] on them in a way that lacks transparency so I can’t say I’m in favor of this.”

Rollins said if the school board can show the half-cent sales tax is needed, the referendum should be on the general election ballot in November 2020.

BCC Chairman Mike Cella said he’s received more calls and emails about this potential sales tax than he has for anything else. According to Cella, most residents perceived the special election as a cynical way to get the funds, and the resolution was too broad.

“We all want better schools and that’s why we have to do this right,” 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.”

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