St. Johns to discuss tax cut, increase

Commissioner envisions property tax reduction, then higher sales tax.

The Times-Union
St. Johns County Commissioner Bruce Maguire doesn't mince words about how he wants to shake up the county's tax structure.

Maguire favors slashing property tax rates by 20 percent. To make up for lost revenue, he says the county should levy a 1-cent local sales tax and boost the local gas tax by 5 cents. In that scenario, consumers would pay more taxes at the cash register and gas pumps, but property owners would get a break on their annual tax bills.

"I'm going under the premise that property owners are paying too much of the burden to operate the county," Maguire said.

The St. Johns County Commission has just begun its deliberations on what changes -- if any -- it would make. The commission heard a report Tuesday on the menu of taxes and fees that are available to the county. Maguire said he would like to have referendums in fall 2004 or spring 2005 on a sales tax. A majority of the commission would have to agree to put the measure on the ballot.

In beginning that study, St. Johns County becomes the latest Northeast Florida county to look at changing its mix of taxes to keep up with population growth and the demand for construction of new public buildings and roads. Duval County voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase for the Better Jacksonville Plan in 2000.

But Clay County voters rejected a half-cent sales tax increase this year for schools. The Clay County Commission later enacted impact fees on new construction that will raise $2,000 for schools on each single-family house that's built. The commission also agreed to tax electricity and natural gas sales for the first time.

Changing the tax structure is a complex undertaking because state law limits how many kinds of taxes can be used, said Bob McKee, government liaison for the Florida Association of Counties. "We don't get a dollar and then we get to spend the dollar in any which way we can," he said.

Most Northeast Florida counties already collect a local sales tax, which is levied on top of the state's 6-cent sales tax. Duval, Clay, Nassau, Baker and Flagler counties all have 1-cent local sales taxes.

In smaller counties whose populations were less than 50,000 in 1992, the county commission can vote to enact a sales tax, according to state law. The sales taxes in Baker and Nassau counties were approved by their county commissions.

In larger counties, only voters can approve a sales tax. St. Johns County falls into that category.

The St. Johns County Commission unanimously approved a property tax rate increase in September. The rate is $7.15 per $1,000 of taxable property value. A person who owns a $125,000 house with a $25,000 homestead exemption would pay $715 in county taxes.

A year ago, the same homeowner would have paid a county tax bill of $671 when the tax rate was $6.71.

In raising the property tax rate, commissioners cited the necessity to hire a couple dozen more firefighters and build a new fire station for the county's rapid pace of growth.

Maguire's proposal would roll back the county's tax rate to about $5.75. He said that would reduce the county's property tax revenue by more than $17 million a year. The sales tax and gas tax increases would offset that loss, he said.

Maguire said a sales tax referendum in St. Johns County should be modeled after the Better Jacksonville Plan, which gave voters a long list of projects that would be funded by the tax increase and set an expiration date for the tax. He said the gas tax increase would be tied to paying for construction of new roads, which the commission would identify., (904) 359-4581