Are We Losing Our Island Paradise? – An opinion

By Gerald Decker
June 22, 2022

There is that danger for many, as local property taxes continue to rise year after year, creating a real financial burden for many residents, with some actually forced to move. Paying for the wear-and-tear caused by a tsunami of tourists, as well as the exploding cost of government, is becoming an unreasonable burden. It is time for local politicians to fully understand and respect the taxpayers who quietly, peacefully, and consistently pay for government services.

Here are some key elements that define the profile of our small resort town and its’ citizens:

  • Crime rates are 10% lower than Florida average.
  • Cost of living is 9% higher than Florida average.
  • Real estate prices are 65% higher than Florida average.
  • Median income is $64,000.
  • Median age is 57 years.
  • Persons 65 years and over—30% and rising.

What emerges is a clear picture of the real taxpayers in this small city by the sea. Largely people who are nearing the end of their working life or have moved here after having lived their younger years in another part of the country, and who are either retired, living on a limited income, or semi-retired, supplementing their retirement with full or part-time work. Many are also retired military—thank you.

These citizens are drawn here by the magic of Florida, and the charm of Fernandina Beach, to enjoy a pleasant, peaceful, and rich life away from the rush and stress of raising a family and working long hours to earn a living—simply seeking a little bit of Paradise.

Not activists, they simply expect their local government to provide essential services and safety. They are willing to pay their fair share for those services, and will not complain even when the cost of those services keeps rising year after year—but who speak quietly about the ever-increasing burden, and no clear plan for lessening it. They do not descend on City Hall demanding change or else—some call them the silent majority—and are only heard on election days.

While a few have owned their home for 25, 30 years or more, many have not, and are being routinely challenged to pay large city and county property tax bills. For them, especially those on a limited income, a $4,000 or $5,000 or even higher tax bill represents a significant annual expense—for someone having a median income of $64,000 that is almost 10%–a major impact on their quality of life! A sort of “mortgage” that never gets paid off and goes up without end!

Property tax in Fernandina has risen significantly over the last 13 years. A home appraised at $287,000 in 2009 has seen this tax increase by over 55%, even with the protection provided by the Homestead Exemption and the annual assessment cap. The time is near when families will say “I cannot afford this”. Anger is beginning to develop over this attitude that local government cannot reduce spending in any significant way.

For how long, City Commissioners, will you try our patience? When will you realize you are making this Paradise an enclave only affordable by wealthy outsiders? It is time, as we emerge from the Great Pandemic, to take action and bring property tax under control—find other sources of revenue to help carry the burden of being a Paradise.

Now more than ever, local government managers and politicians need to clearly understand the citizens they serve, their resources, their hopes, and their dreams for a fulfilling life on this beautiful barrier island. Keep Fernandina Beach a unique historic community for everyone—not just a privileged few. It can be done, it must be done.

Gerald “Jerry” Decker came to Fernandina Beach 15 years ago from Fairfax, VA.  A Vietnam Veteran, Jerry enjoyed a prosperous career as a technology executive for several Fortune 500 companies and started his own business.  He served as chairman of the City of Fernandina Beach Marina Advisory Board.  According to Jerry, “I offer this opinion only as a concerned taxpayer, and do not represent any activist political group (Common Sense, Conserve Amelia, etc.)”

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Doug Mowery
Doug Mowery(@douglasm)
1 year ago

“For how long, City Commissioners, will you try our patience? When will you realize you are making this Paradise an enclave only affordable by wealthy outsiders? It is time, as we emerge from the Great Pandemic, to take action and bring property tax under control—find other sources of revenue to help carry the burden of being a Paradise.”

Jerry……I don’t disagree, but what are your ideas to increase revenues? Everybody wants this, but it is an extremely tough (and very political) problem that confronts us! I only see one Commissioner consistently trying to move things forward……the rest put their finger in the air to find the current political “winds”.

Are you running for the FBCC? You should! Sounds like you would make a good Commissioner!

Jack Hoagland
Jack Hoagland (@guest_65479)
1 year ago
Reply to  Doug Mowery

How about a 10% “impact fee” on the purchase of real estate by a non-Florida resident?

GERALD DECKER(@myfernandina)
1 year ago
Reply to  Doug Mowery

Doug, I have made suggestions to the Commissioners on ways to reduce costs and open other revenue streams….jury is still out.

Gordon Hart
Gordon Hart (@guest_65489)
1 year ago

I no longer live in the area, but did for over 30 years. In my opinion, the City has not been well managed for many decades. A lot money has been flushed down many drains. This is not news to most people. If I had any ideas to cure the situation beyond encouraging prudence and efficiency, and lowering the guaranteed yearly increase on City-funded pensions to the 4% area, I would voice them. But the problems in Fernandina Beach, beyond the normal ones encountered in any political body, have been ongoing no matter the players, with vigor, since the 1970s, and seem to be an endemic condition not subject to any solution.

Peter Mallory
Peter Mallory (@guest_65490)
1 year ago

This fellow really summed up the situation. The City seems penalize the folks that pay their salaries. A good example is the archaic Resort Rental Permit. Imagine you or your aging loved one has a nice home with a garage apartment . The tax bill keeps getting higher . Unless they are zone “R-3” thar little apartment could not be rented out for less than 30 days at a time. That property owner just about anywhere else in Florida could put it on Airbnb and probably make enough to pay the tax bill a few months.

The current Resort Rental Permit ordinance is over 20 years old. It would be illegal to pass such a rule today in Florida. They can’t amend it or it would be thrown out . It’s “grandfathered” in.

Sure that property owner could rent it to someone long term .But the income from being able to rent it to a visiting family or couple short term would raise more money in a shorter time.

This law seems to favor those owners in large condos and the local hotels. Which just create greater burdens in traffic and the beach parking. It’s time to scrap that law.

There are also many folks “flying under the radar” renting their units independently in the R-3 zone and probably not permitted or paying their tourist tax or hold the State license for a “transient” apartment (a vacation rental).

I get the law was probably passed to protect neighborhoods near the beach from crazy tourists and weekend party crowds but as author stated, the cost of living here just keeps going up and folks nearing retirement are going to usually be in a “fixed” income.

If you own a property In Fernandina zoned commercial C-3 which permits Hotels, Motels and B&B’s but because of the RRP will not let you rent out one tiny apartment short term – that just makes no common sense.

Bob Weintraub
Bob Weintraub(@rukbat23gmail-com)
1 year ago

Much of the tax increase Jerry Decker refers to comes from an increase in property values, not an increase in the tax rate. Read Dale Martin’s letter in this issue of the Observer to see that the Capital Improvements planned are primarily maintenance costs and not new projects. Maintenance of city property has been kicked down the road for so long that the city is approaching a crisis. Not mentioned here is the need to protect the downtown area from rising water levels that make Front Street flooding a commonality. Rejection of consideration of a bond to deal with river shore stabilization and other maintenance issues has hurt Fernandina’s future.

GERALD DECKER(@myfernandina)
1 year ago
Reply to  Bob Weintraub

Taxes are determined by the adopted city budget. Tax rate is determined by assessed value. Taxes rise because the city budget gets bigger. Maintenance and flood mitigation can be planned and paid for if commissioners want to make the effort.

Robert S. Warner, Jr.
Robert S. Warner, Jr. (@guest_65516)
1 year ago

They do a good job with the issues they confront, Gerald. Took 6 years to get $7,500,000 (or thereabouts) FEMA reimbursement after the Marina hurricane hit in 2016. And took the Biden Administration to get it through. It’s not magic.

Lawrence Piper
Lawrence Piper (@guest_65510)
1 year ago

Part of the problem is folks move here to enjoy our island and when someone proposes a ” beautiful park” or some other ammenity, they vote YES for it. Sombody’s gotta pay for that stuff!
There’s a post floating around Facebook right now: The Mill is making too much noise. One responder promotes getting rid of the mill. When pointed out that those mills pay taxes, it was suggested that property owners could cover the taxes with a “couple of hundred” more per owner. That type of mindset is one reason our taxes continue to rise. Yes, sooner or later we won’t be able to afford to live here. It’s real.

1 year ago
Reply to  Lawrence Piper

My guess is most of the complaints about the mill noise is from those who moved into new units in the downtown area. After the mill, they probably figuree the railroad will go away too.

1 year ago

Lower the property tax rate…this will solve a lot problems. Charge the new house developers a surcharge to build here and make up for any difference.