Clay County commissioners send school infrastructure tax referendum back to the school board

Clay County Commissioners reject half-cent sales tax plan

CLAY COUNTY, Fla. — Story published 7/9/19:

The Clay County Board of County Commissioners is telling the School Board that there is more work to do before they’re willing to move forward with a plan to allow a vote on a new half-cent sales tax to support school needs.

Commissioners voted Tuesday to send the proposed referendum back to the School Board. They expressed several concerns, including a perceived lack of transparency and some conflict within the referendum. Their action came with instruction for the School Board to refine their pitch and also set the date of the referendum for the November 2020 General Election.

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“We all want better education for our kids. We realize that better schools help do that. Better schools also help us keep our real estate values higher, it’s an undeniable fact. We realize that we have to keep up with growth that’s not only here now, but that’s coming. It’s coming down the pipe. That’s why we have to do it right, that’s why there’s too much at stake at this time to try to rush things through,” says County Commission Chairman Mike Cella.

This process started moving quickly after the Clay County School Board voted last month to put the question to a vote by you, in the form of a referendum. The half-cent sales tax would be in place for 30 years, beginning January 1, 2020, if this measure is approved. In that time, the Clay County School District estimates the tax would generate more than $400 million to support various school needs.

“We are truly at a pivotal point as a County,” says Clay Assistant Superintendent for Operations Dr. Michael Kemp.

One concern about this proposal expressed by Commissioners is that the Clay County School Board initially asked for a special election, but didn’t recommend a date. That was amended just yesterday, to recommend the referendum take place November 5th, 2019. County Commissioners had concerns that there were changes made so soon before they were supposed to take up the matter, and they added that the amended referendum wasn’t actually what they were considering Tuesday night, because it hadn’t been filed with them in time. Several said that meeting yesterday was not in the spirit of transparency, which the residents of Clay County expect.

“I can’t support something I’ve gotta scratch my head that many times over,” says Commissioner Gayward Hendry.

The cost of that special election would be around $180,000 and covered by the District, according to School Board documents, but the Supervisor of Elections says it’s hard to know the exact cost. He told Commissioners that one thing he’s still trying to understand from the District is whether there would be early voting in this election, and that answer would in turn impact cost. The Supervisor of Elections also raised the question of voter turnout, saying there would be far more voters taking part in a General Election ballot, if this comes up in November 2020, as opposed to a special election November 2019.

“Let’s put it on the November 2020 election ballot. Who can be against that? Who would, why would anyone be against saving taxpayer money, allowing more people to have a say in this, and then having an honest discussion and debate,” questioned Commissioner Gavin Rollins.

Yet another concern is what Commissioners believed to be some vague wording in the referendum, in terms of how the money would be able to be spent. While the School Board has said that the focus of this revenue would be addressing the infrastructure needs in the District, the resolution language also allows for safety and security improvements, technology implementation and upgrades, and service bond indebtedness. Commissioners want that to be more clear and specific, especially because Clay County voters last year approved a property tax hike to fund school safety and security needs.

“It’s clear our citizens are upset. They think their tax dollars are not going to be spent well,” Cella says.

Additionally, the plan requires a Citizen Advisory Committee composed of Clay County citizens be assembled by the School Board, to monitor and advise the Board and District on the expenditures. Some Commissioners questioned whether that Committee could truly operate independently, if they are appointed by the School Board.

The District says, in all, they have nearly $620 million in needs. $318 million of this new tax revenue would be used for repairs across the District, and $300 million would be for construction of up to seven new schools in the next ten years. Kemp told the Board that there's no clear justification for why these maintenance needs haven't been addressed sooner, but it's something that needs to be done now.

“I’m here to tell you that, you know, Houston, we have a problem. Clay has an issue,” Kemp says.

Commissioner Wayne Bolla says the State has dropped public school funding for maintenance to nothing, with the intent that municipalities- who have taxing authority- come up with a way to address their needs. He says the other funding the District receives is required to be used for certain areas, so there is not a lot of flexibility in finding the money that’s needed.

“The only place we’re gunna get the money is this additional sales tax right now. I don’t see where it’s gunna come any other way,” Bolla says.

This is not unlike the discussion taking in Duval County, where the School Board voted to have you decide on a half-cent sales tax to support nearly $2 billion in infrastructure needs, to include repairs and full replacements of school facilities. A key difference is that, in Jacksonville, the General Counsel has issued an opinion that the City Council has an active role in the decision of whether to place this matter on a ballot. In Clay County, Commissioners were told ahead of their discussion Tuesday that the County is interpreting that it is mandatory that the Commission put the issue on a ballot. Despite that, some Commissioners pointed out that there have been conflicting legal opinions in this regard, and they ultimately voted Tuesday night not to kill the measure outright, but send it back to the School Board for more work.

Kemp says they're committing to moving this forward, because when the deferred maintenance is added to the pending growth Clay is expecting- especially with the gradual opening of the First Coast Expressway- waiting any longer is not an option.

“Vision without implementation is hallucination. We’ve got to have a way to execute, and I’m ready for a solution,” he says.

The Clay County School District says they don’t have any comment on the Board’s vote at this time. They deferred comment to individual Board members. WOKV has reached out to Board members for their reaction, and we will update you as those come in.

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