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Ground game carries St. Johns Sales Tax referendum to resounding victory

The cash strapped St. Johns County School Board can anticipate some relief coming in the very near future.

St. Johns County’s half cent sales tax referendum, which was polling with 53 percent approval in September, toppled resistance to pass by a resounding margin. For the first time in more than a quarter century, St. Johns County has approved a sales tax referendum. And this one’s for the children.

With 35,051 votes counted, and all precincts in. the Yes vote prevailed by a nearly 22% margin.

It carried the vast majority of precincts.

With St. Johns County growth continuing, new schools, as well as upgraded schools, are considered to be a quality of life issue.

Kevin Sweeny, who directed the referendum effort, attributed the victory to political fundamentals: a strong ground game since June, with sharp mailpieces by Tom and Fred Piccolo of Strategic Image Management.

“It was a good night,” Sweeny said, attributing the success to “early work on the ground” by volunteers and the field team since June.

“You’ve got to get out there and sweat,” Sweeny said, “and knock on doors.”

When asked for more strategy details, Sweeny said that “we won this election early” by “going after people we knew, past early voters in the last four elections,” knocking on those doors multiple times.

Sweeny, who was optimistic after the September poll, knew a turning point had happened about a month ago, when he and his team would knock on doors of people who had already internalized the talking points on the mailpieces.

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Such an effort was necessary, as “six tax referendums had failed in St. Johns County since 1988,” and to get this effort through, it was necessary to go out and talk to people.

Which he and his team did. Starting with a “big push in the city limits” of St. Augustine, they expanded their outreach toward the beach, the southern part of the County, and so on, to overcome resistance in rural areas.

Sweeny described the referendum as a “victory for our children and our future.”

His enthusiasm was shared by School Board member Patrick Canan, who cited the referendum as key to the School District maintaining its standards for public education.

“The board figured out that the growth problem” had to be solved locally, and the referendum gives them the resources to “do something about it.”

The sales tax hike was necessary, said Canan, since Tallahassee blocked millage rate increases.

“It’s a fascinating collision of politics,” Canan said of the clashing priorities between state and local understanding of needs.

“This goes a long way,” Canan said, toward addressing St. Johns County needs, which are myriad.

Written By

A.G. Gancarski has been a working journalist for over two decades. Gancarski has been a correspondent for FloridaPolitics.com since 2014. In 2018, he was a finalist for an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies "best political column." He can be reached at a.g.gancarski@gmail.com.

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