Last November, St. Johns County voters approved via referendum a 1/2 cent discretionary sales surtax for capital needs of its school district, overcoming resistance to tax hikes from the deeply conservative Northeast Florida county.
Now that the dust has settled, we reached out to Beth Sweeny, Governmental Relations Coordinator for the School District, to ascertain early effects of the tax, which went into effect Jan. 1.
Is revenue hitting its mark? Is the money being allocated as it should be? And are taxpayers feeling the pinch?
So far, so good, says Sweeny, based on the two months of revenue received so far (a lag which accounts of state processing of the monies).
January brought $1,124,769 into county coffers, and February’s total of $1,255,759 was even stronger, for a two-month total of $2,380,528, said Sweeny, who notes that “these figures are in line with our original projections of $13 million a year and $150 million over the 10-year life span of the surtax (which takes growth into account).”
That $150 million has already been earmarked, said Sweeney, who provided a list of critically needed allocations based on the revenue.
Just two months in, Sweeny adds, the money is already paying dividends for the district, as the capital provides the basis for bonded financing of projects critical to the long-term health of the district, while still allowing “pay-go” project flexibility.
“In February,” Sweeny said, “$42.7 million bonds were issued with a $7.7 million premium, for a total of $50 million by the school board in order to build two new schools.
“The school district will automatically set aside dollars each month from sales tax collections for debt service, which is $5.7 million annually. The remaining cash collected each month will go in a project account for pay-as-you-go projects outlined on the published project list,” Sweeny adds.
Tangible benefits, including in student transport safety, are being realized. The district has purchased new 800 megahertz radios for all school buses, which were listed on the critical needs project list.
“These are an important safety upgrade which allow our bus drivers to have direct communication with law enforcement and emergency response in the event of an emergency,” Sweeny said. “The radios will be installed this summer on approximately 220 school buses. The radios cost approximately $871,000 and are being paid for in cash set aside for ‘pay-as-you-go’ projects,” Sweeny said.
The tax is a big help for the district as it builds new facilities for its youngest students, Sweeny contends.
“The school district is scheduled to break ground on three new schools this June. Two K-8’s and one elementary school. Two of these schools (one K-8 and the elementary school) are being paid for with bonded sales tax revenue (the $50 million referenced above). The other K-8 is being paid for through impact fees and concurrency payments made by developers,” Sweeny said, adding that these projects will be on line quickly.
“All three of these schools are scheduled to open for the 2017-2018 school year. Without the sales tax revenue we would not be able to build the above referenced two schools and more children would be housed in portable classrooms,” she added.
In Jacksonville, where a pension tax referendum looms on the August ballot, a recurrent gripe is that it is a regressive tax. I asked Sweeny: are St. Johns County taxpayers feeling the hit?
“To my knowledge the school district has not received any complaints from residents of the county that they are feeling the half-penny increase. I certainly cannot speak for every resident, but it seems to me that people have adjusted and my guess is most tourists (who are paying up to 40 percent of the $13 million projected revenue annually) do not even know there was an increase,” Sweeny said.
Expect this model to be replicated in other counties feeling the impact of growth. The extra sales tax for St. Johns County clearly was the right solution.