Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Developer-driven sales tax increase in trouble: Tea Party opposes it, too! (No, we're not "amused" by snooty snobs' tax avoidance plea).

How do you sell (or defeat) a sales tax? Conflicting views on how to fund area growth
Posted: October 27, 2015 - 11:40pm | Updated: October 27, 2015 - 11:50pm
If nothing else, the St. Johns County School Board’s referendum for a ½-cent sales tax increase for capital projects has rekindled a countywide debate on what’s to be done about growth — and who should pay the price.
A political action committee formed in support of the proposed sales tax increase raised more than $100,000 in less than two months.
The PAC, headed by chairwoman Alecia Bailey and her husband Mark Bailey, president of The Bailey Group, is called “Better Schools. Better Economy. Brighter Future.”
Its first financial report, submitted to the St. Johns County Supervisor of Elections Office on Oct. 16, shows monetary support from private citizens, insurance companies, law firms, car dealerships and school officials, as well as real estate investors, consultants and developers.
Lance Thate, chairman of the St. Augustine Tea Party, said the list of contributors was telling and worthy of a red flag.
“It seems to me that the very people who are going to profit from the school construction are, in fact, the people who are paying into the PAC,” Thate said. “I think it’s quite obvious what’s going on.”
Mark Bailey said there hasn’t been much financial support for the PAC he didn’t have to ask for and that he was not concerned about where the support was coming from.
“It’s amusing to me because people think that I’m at my office and I’ve got people lining up there with checks and grants, but I have made hundreds of phone calls,” he said. “If anybody thinks I have people coming up to me and just handing me checks, I cannot think of one, except for Alecia’s.”
The PAC’s 47 donors contributed a total of $107,230 between Aug. 27 and Oct. 16.
The PAC’s expenditures between Aug. 27 and Oct. 16 totaled $106,220.94, $101,132.84 of which went to the Vero Beach-based David Millner Group for services including consulting; printing and mailing; research and polling; legal and compliance. Printing and mailing expenses took up the bulk of expenses at nearly $70,000.
According to the David Millner Group’s website, other clients have included the Republican Party of Florida, Florida Crystals Sugar and Florida Federation for Children.
All the stops
Kevin Sweeny, director for the Baileys’ PAC, said shortly after the PAC’s formation that the days of just buying advertisements in support of or against an initiative or candidate are over.
Mark Bailey said they’re using pamphlets, fliers, brochures, mailers, billboards, T-shirts, stickers and signs, as well as door-to-door campaigning and speaking engagements with community groups across the county.
“It feels like a bit of a daunting task,” he said. “There are people who are undecided, but there are also people changing their minds.”
He said on Saturday that the first door he and Alecia had knocked on the previous weekend became a 25-minute conversation that ultimately turned a definite “No” vote into a definite “Yes” vote.
Sweeny acknowledged their accomplishment but reminded a group of PAC volunteers gathered at the Mission Nombre de Dios parking lot on Saturday that time was running out.
“Knocking on doors and making phone calls are the two most important things you can do in the next 10 days,” he told volunteers. “I understand signs. Signs are nice, signs are pretty, but signs don’t vote.”
Sweeny said there had been 186 requests for absentee ballots made to the Supervisor of Elections Office by St. Johns County teachers and, as of Saturday, 160 of those ballots had been returned.
He said while it was somewhat upsetting there were only 186 requests, teachers were turning in those ballots at about 83 percent. He told volunteers if they could get 83 percent of the 2,700 county teachers out to vote — assuming they would vote “Yes” — it could put them over the top on Nov. 3.
Thate said the St. Augustine Tea Party is taking a more grassroots approach, with plans to have some people demonstrating against the sales tax referendum at polling stations throughout the early voting period and on Election Day.
“We don’t have $150,000 to spend, and we don’t have any donors who have that kind of money,” he said. “We do what we can do.”
Organized opposition has come largely in the form of protests, demonstrations, speaking engagements and Thate’s Town Crier Committee reports.
He said he doesn’t know how any one party will vote, but that the tea party locally includes Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians and nonaffiliated voters.
Meanwhile, Bailey said he thinks the sales tax referendum has the general support of Democrats and independent voters and that much of the opposition hasn’t appeared motivated enough to come out and vote against it.
He estimated only 10 percent of the doors he’s knocked on were definite “no” votes or were not interested in discussing the proposed increase.
“I think there are going to be people who are just grasping for a reason to oppose it — and they’re going to find something,” he said.
Thate said imposing a sales tax is not the proper way to build schools and that developments should pay for schools, firehouses and other needs for infrastructure that arise from the new growth. “Instead, we have the less affluent portions of the county, such as Hastings and Flagler Estates — and the farmers in between — paying for schools in the wealthiest part of the county,” he said. “It doesn’t seem right to us.”
He said he’s expecting it to be a close election, nonetheless.
“We don’t believe that this is about children and schools; we believe this is about interests and banks,” he said. “This is almost a scam.”
Vicky Oakes, supervisor of elections for St. Johns County, said although it is a single-issue ballot, she is expecting a 25-30 percent voter turnout.
She said Tuesday afternoon that turnout was already approaching 7 percent, with the busiest days still ahead.
“It’s a sales tax — and people don’t often prefer to vote on taxes — but if they’re going to vote for them, it’s going to be for one side or the other,” Oakes said. “The other issue is, it’s about our community and it’s about our schools.”
The PAC’s second financial report, covering Oct. 17-Oct. 30, is due to the Supervisor of Elections Office on Friday. Its final report, covering Oct. 31-Jan. 28, is due Jan. 28.
Tax talking
The school board on June 30 unanimously called for a referendum election to determine whether it would be authorized to levy a 10-year, ½-cent sales tax for capital outlay projects.
The school capital outlay surtax would exclusively fund projects in new construction, reconstruction, improvement of existing school facilities, safety and security improvements and technology upgrades.
If approved by St. Johns County voters on Nov. 3, the sales tax increase would go into effect Jan. 1, 2016, and terminate Dec. 31, 2025.
According to estimates, the increase would generate $13 million in the first full year of implementation and $150 million over the 10-year collection period.
The referendum requires 50 percent plus one in favor of the sales tax in order to pass.
The county’s current sales tax rate is 6 percent, which is the state minimum. Referenda for St. Johns County sales tax increases have been defeated in elections in 1988, 1994, 1998 and 2008.

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