Commentary: What Will it Take to Be United in Keeping Our Paradise?

By Suanne Thamm

Hatfields vs. McCoys. Sharks vs. Jets. Natives vs. Newbies.

Isn’t it about time that local residents find some middle ground for advancing community priorities? Most of us either stayed here or moved here to enjoy the wonderful amenities offered by our little island locality and the awakening mainland county. We cherish the “hometown feel,”  which allows for that old-fashioned quality called “neighborliness.”

And yet … and yet …

Too often differing opinions on topics important to us all lead to name-calling and other types of acrimony directed at those who do not share our views. Two of the biggest areas of conflict are taxes and development.

Many of us have reaped the benefits of Florida’s “Save Our Homes” policy. “Save our Homes” is an amendment to the Florida constitution that took effect in 1993. It limits the annual increase in the assessed value of homesteaded properties to 3% or the change in the National Consumer Price Index (CPI), whichever is less. The purpose of the provision was to protect Florida residents from being priced out of their homes due to increasing market values and thus, increasing real estate taxes, also known as ad valorem taxes. The result of this law is that those of us who homesteaded in 1993 or earlier pay a fraction of the ad valorem (property taxes) than those who homesteaded later. The table below represents taxes due for three single-family properties in the same block in Fernandina Beach:

Market Value Assessed Value Square Footage Homestead? Total tax due*
$572,648 $572,648 2800 N $10,525.60
$598,059 $336,834 2974 Y $5,409
$477,326 $139,546 3521 Y $1,783.50

*NOTE:  Total tax due includes county, school district, city, and several smaller taxes.

Those residents who either did not homestead, or who filed their homestead at a time of rising house prices, pay the most taxes. Many of these residents pay their taxes via their monthly mortgage payment. But since the Save Our Homes Amendment became effective 30 years ago, most of the longer term residents have already paid off mortgages, meaning that they get a tax bill that must be paid in full out of pocket.

Is it fair that three separate households in an area zoned for single families should pay such wildly different property taxes? The property owners all drive on the same streets, use the same parks and recreation facilities, and benefit from the same water and sewer systems. Whether or not they have school age children, they all pay school taxes.

Fairness is in the mind of the definer. But the fact is that property taxes are levied and collected according to laws enacted by the State of Florida. Since the Florida Constitution has ruled out state income tax as a form of revenue, county and municipal governments as well as school districts must rely heavily on property taxes to fund their operations. Other tax revenues, such as sales taxes and gas taxes, are heavily funded by the many tourists and visitors to the state.

Fernandina Beach has tried to develop other sources of revenue to offset problems created by growth and the influx of visitors. Most notably, recent commissions have floated the idea of paid parking at the beach, downtown or both. However, due to the very vocal opposition from parts of the community, this option, which could bring the city an additional million dollars in revenue annually, has been killed early in discussions.  Commissioners have been unwilling to take the heat from such a decision, even though they know that most of the parking revenue would come from visitors or residents of mainland Nassau County.

It is naive to think that the pandemic, inflation and supply chain problems have not had a negative effect on local governments. When consumers pay more for gas, so does government. Homeowner project delays are echoed by government delays. For instance pumps ordered last summer for construction of the Alachua Street opening are now scheduled to arrive this month—a delay of 8 months.

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that Nassau County—including both the city of Fernandina Beach and the unincorporated parts of Amelia Island—have been discovered. Every morning traffic clogs all three incoming lanes of SR 200 (A1A) consisting mostly of passenger vehicles and small trucks. Log trucks and 18-wheelers form a small percentage of inbound island traffic. Beats me where most of these folks are headed. But judging from the new homes sprouting up in previously undeveloped parcels, I’d guess that many of these vehicles belong to construction workers, building new homes or refurbishing old ones for newcomers to our island. This situation produces anxiety for those folks who prefer the laid back, small town nature of our little piece of paradise. The cry “Pull up the bridge!” is regularly heard from many, including the people who just moved here.

New residents rail against developers and builders who remove trees to add houses, even though their own houses were built on recently cleared land. Natives bemoan the increased pace of life that comes with development, along with the increased traffic and demands for more parking spaces. Yet it was the natives who were willing to sell their undeveloped properties to developers for skyrocketing prices.

Folks who moved here from New York and New Jersey initially were grateful that Fernandina Beach was different. They oppose increased residential development. Now many of them complain that local government does not offer the level of services that they got routinely in New York and New Jersey.

Residential growth does not pay for itself.

Yes, property tax revenues increase when previously rural property is rezoned residential. But the resulting increase in population requires increased public spending on schools, roads, recreation and public safety.

Single family property owners who have made the decision to settle here have little recourse against big developers. The builders and developers have money and influence that they are not afraid to wield to achieve their ends.

This is another reason why elections are so important. Whether elected representatives at the state and local level are Democrats, Republicans or neither, they should be representatives of the people, not the money funneled through PACs and media buys. A look at campaign contributions made to local candidates last fall reveals that conservative PACs played a strong role in supporting the victors.

Old timers will tell you that at one time a big campaign war chest for a candidate would be $5,000. Not so today. Both Darron Ayscue (who reported $20,000 in monetary contributions) and James Antun (who reported $9,980) out-raised their opponents. Complete information on campaign contributions and expenditures is readily available on the Nassau County Supervisor of Elections’ website: https://www.votenassaufl.gov/.

Is there a way to have a more enlightened debate over topics like taxes and development? Absolutely. And all power to do this resides in the hands of citizens.

Knowledge is power. Sadly, much of the debates center around half truths, misunderstandings, and outright falsehoods. While sound bites opposing taxes and government may be catchy, they don’t always capture the truth. At the local level, citizens need to place much less faith in social media and spend more time educating themselves on the ins and outs of government finances as well as requirements of laws, including the city charter.

Natives and newbies are both invested in our community. Having been born and raised in Fernandina Beach or Nassau County does not make any individual more qualified to hold public office. Nor do newbies arrive with all the answers to problems natives never even knew they had.  We must find ways to work together. Otherwise, it won’t be long before all of us look back on today as the good old days and bemoan the loss of small town living that made life here such a unique pleasure.

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Sheila
Sheila(@srcocchi)
1 year ago

Thanks for explaining how the taxes work. So many don’t understand.

Also of note in the fall elections, Bean raised $30k mostly from PACs, Developers and money far outside Fernandina while Sturges raised $0 for the same mayoral spot.

Al MacDougall
Al MacDougall (@guest_67771)
1 year ago
Reply to  Sheila

I think most people do understand “how taxes work” since that is a major expense.

Sheila
Sheila(@srcocchi)
1 year ago
Reply to  Al MacDougall

You’d be surprised. Many people don’t know whether or not they live in the city or unincorporated Nassau.

PerryL
PerryL (@guest_67835)
1 year ago
Reply to  Sheila

Moo.

A2xGator
Active Member
A2xGator(@a2xgator)
1 year ago
Reply to  PerryL

More like Baa…

Mark Tomes
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
1 year ago

Good points and information; thanks. Also, developers could be paying much more in their fees than they are now to help offset the costs of their developments. And, it might be helpful to have some roundtable discussions on some of the issues brought up in this article. Face-to-face communication is needed.

bob
bob (@guest_67762)
1 year ago

For such a small town with so many responsibilities, it is nearly impossible to lower costs across the board. The real income for ad valorum tax revenue is through commercial real estate. Sadly, we don’t have enough of that. The savvy investors move beyond the City limits to save that City charge.

John Findlay
John Findlay(@jfindlay)
1 year ago

Very good article! Better communication is certainly needed! And keep PAC money out of nonpartisan elections.

Lisa
Lisa (@guest_67764)
1 year ago

What is the average age of new home owners on the island? Do they have young families? My concern with property taxes and the way they are levied on new home owners is we are pricing out our young people. With the average cost of a new home and the high property taxes, young residents who grew up on the island and want to stay here simply can’t afford to. At this rate, we won’t have to worry about schools and parks as there will be no little ones around to use them. One of the big attractions to this island is the multi-generational hometown feel, not a retirement community.

Alyce Parmer
Alyce Parmer (@guest_67765)
1 year ago

Thanks Susan Thamm for this informative article. I’m a weirdo who actually believes taxes are needed and beneficial, as long as everyone pays their fair share. I think regulations that serve everyone are necessary. And, i believe in government of, by and for the people, not the corporations and special interests. As for a fairer tax base, if Jacksonville could annex a whole county, FB could and should annex a whole island. Non city island corporations and people enjoy at no cost all that FB residents pay for. If there’s a valid reason why this is not feasible, someone please enlighten me.

John Rasmussen
John Rasmussen (@guest_67766)
1 year ago
Reply to  Alyce Parmer

Talk talk and no specifics. Here is a thought. Stop spending $15 million to attract and increase the number of tourists visiting the island and our beaches.

Medardo
Medardo(@mmonzon)
1 year ago
Reply to  John Rasmussen

The City doesn’t spend this money. It’s spent by the Tourist Development Council which is overseen by Nassau County not the City

Alyce Parmer
Alyce Parmer (@guest_67802)
1 year ago
Reply to  Medardo

who funds the Tourist Development Council?

rconrad
Noble Member
rconrad(@conrad2k)
1 year ago
Reply to  John Rasmussen

As I understand it, the hotel bed taxes go to the county, not the city, but what facilities do the tourists in the hotels use? The City of Fernandina Beach shoulders a lot of the tourist burden, but gets a fraction of the tax revenue. Am I wrong?

Alyce Parmer
Alyce Parmer (@guest_67801)
1 year ago
Reply to  John Rasmussen

Well that’s an excellent thought, We don’t need to advertise paradise. People discover it all by themselves. But, a city annex of the whole island would make the tax base fairer and lessen the burden on the north end,

Mike McClane
Mike McClane(@concerned-citizen)
1 year ago
Reply to  Alyce Parmer

Nassau County collects revenue from two resorts and south island property taxes South Island residents will not vote to pay city taxes, Their utility bills are cheaper, and permit fees more reasonable,

A2xGator
Active Member
A2xGator(@a2xgator)
1 year ago
Reply to  Alyce Parmer

When I asked a neighbor 20 years ago why doesn’t the island vote to allow FB to incorporate, like Sanibel, the reply was: “Nobody trusts the city council.” Same as it ever was apparently, today.

Wende Burdick
Wende Burdick (@guest_69692)
1 year ago
Reply to  Alyce Parmer

We live in the unincorporated area of the island because we moved away from a city for a reason. We often hear that we are receiving so many city services for free without paying any city taxes. We don’t use the city beaches, parks or other facilities as we prefer to enjoy the beaches and parks that are down here, but we do support the city tax base by being patrons of the businesses, special events and restaurants in Fernandina Beach. Our county property taxes support the schools in the city. We volunteer time and energy within the city limits. It is difficult for an island to manage having 2 jurisdictions but it is manageable if people aren’t divided into 2 camps.

Lucy Bryan Bryan
Lucy Bryan Bryan (@guest_67767)
1 year ago

I feel compelled to comment on the paragraph regarding traffic onto the island in mornings and the author’s belief that all those small trucks and cars must be related to construction. Those vehicles are carrying teachers, nurses, restaurant, retail and hotel workers not to mention those who work in the mills, offices and hospital on Amelia Island. As is true in many resort areas those employees cannot afford to live where they work and most live “over the bridge”. The traffic also includes those of us who live west of the island but have appointments with our doctors, dentists, tax advisors, etc.

I also disagree with the idea that charging for parking at the beach and downtown only impacts visitors. This may come as a surprise but many Fernandina residents actually do patronize shops and restaurants in the historic district and go to the beach.

Joe Blanchard
Joe Blanchard(@jlblan2)
1 year ago

This article addresses topics that are common knowledge to most of us. New comers should have been aware of the property tax rules that exist in Florida so no surprises there. New comers should also be aware of the services that are available here when they visited and fell in love with our little spot of paradise. If they want the services that existed where they came from then, I firmly believe that they should go back where they came from before they are able to morph our paradise into the hell they left. Increasing fees on developers is a nice sounding idea but they will just pass those fees onto the buyers. The buyers will then end up paying more property tax due to the increase cost of the house. As far as the local election is concerned. I always say let the buyer (voter) be ware. It should be every voters obligation to research the candidates and vote on that research not on emotional filled BS. I go out of my way to ignore all the ads that fill the airways and mailboxes. So spend all the money you want, on me it is wasted.

Janet Neckyfarow
Janet Neckyfarow (@guest_67769)
1 year ago

One suggestion: Why not charge for parking but allow residents to get free or buy inexpensively a sticker to put on their car window?

Dave Lott
Dave Lott(@dave-l)
1 year ago

Janet, with regards to beach parking with a free/low cost permit for city property owners, supposedly there cannot be a pricing differential due to the City receiving federal funds for the beach nourishment projects except for people with a disability tag/placard. Personally, I think if the City challenged this opinion by someone in the Army Corps of Engineers (who manages the beach nourishment project) they would win as I have personally visited a number of beaches in the Northeast that have received federal restoration dollars and they have reduced or free parking permits for residents. I have been involved in several of the previous parking studies and the financials were very marginal so the commissioners at the time felt it wasn’t worth the reputational risk. But they were at least ten years ago and it might be worth a reexamination. Of course it all depends on your assumptions as to fees, lot occupancy rates and turnover, etc. as well as the operating costs to service.

Wende Burdick
Wende Burdick (@guest_69693)
1 year ago
Reply to  Dave Lott

I want to be sure I understand what you’re stating. Federal tax money, into which we all pay, is being used for beach nourishment. You want to see everyone except city residents. who would receive reduced or free parking, to be charged for parking at the beach asses points in the city?

Al MacDougall
Al MacDougall (@guest_67770)
1 year ago

The tax inequity illustrated is caused by Florida State Law, which stipulates, among other things, that the “assessed value” of a property resets to “market value” when that property is sold……so, for example, a house with assessed value of 285,000 for tax purposes gets reset to 575,000 for tax purposes when sold for that price. Homestead and Save Our Homes provide some level of stability for property owners, but do not protect them from localities significantly increasing tax rates to compensate….cities like Fernandina Beach derive over 65% of their operating revenue throught property tax….change that and you change everything.

Betsie
Betsie(@betsie-huben)
1 year ago
Reply to  Al MacDougall

Question – what are our elected state reps doing to correct the inequities? Bet they would find many in the state house who would support addressing the problem. We are not the only community having this problem.

Mary-Catherine Cramer
Mary-Catherine Cramer (@guest_67774)
1 year ago

I live in city limits and wish I didn’t have to pay county taxes. The only item I get from the county is the library and I would gladly pay an annual fee to use it instead of $3000 to county.
Chip Ross said the state will not allow Fernandina to withdraw from the county?

Mary-Catherine Cramer
Mary-Catherine Cramer (@guest_67775)
1 year ago

if I didn’t pay county I would have no problem paying more to the city

Steve Vogel
Steve Vogel(@stevedec)
1 year ago

You pay for the court system and the jail.

A2xGator
Active Member
A2xGator(@a2xgator)
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Vogel

Sheriff, Property Appraiser, and other constitutional offices as well.

John Goshco
John Goshco (@guest_67914)
1 year ago

Years ago the “city library” charged me $4-$5 a year for a library card. Since Nassau County took over operations in the early 2000’s Nassau taxes paid for a new roof and a major expansion. I believe that the city still owns the land and building.
I’ve heard that city residents get a small discount on their Nassau property tax bill for duplicate county services, like the Building Department, that city residents don’t use. City residents complain that the discount is insufficient.
In addition to the above comments, here’s a few additional Amelia Island services that the county provides.
Nassau Tax Collector collects property taxes for the City. They also issue driver licenses and auto tags from that quaint old building downtown.
Nassau school tax is 40% – 45% of most people’s tax bill.
Nassau Appraiser maintains everyone’s property records.
Nassau maintains the county roads within the city limits.
Nassau Supervisor of Elections runs City elections.
Nassau maintains five beaches, island-wide bike trails, and the Dee Dee Bartels boat ramp.
Nassau Emergency Management helps everyone with natural disasters.
I suspect that a lot of city trash ends up in the Nassau Landfill.

Unfortunately, taxes aren’t based on what a particular individual needs or utilizes, but upon what many (not necessarily most) people want.

Dman
Dman(@darryl)
1 year ago

another absurd poorly written propaganda piece. Two quick examples:

  1. Folks who moved here from New York and New Jersey initially were grateful that Fernandina Beach was different. They oppose increased residential development. Now many of them complain that local government does not offer the level of services that they got routinely in New York and New Jersey.” no factual basis for this whine whatsoever, Complaints about failures of the city are not based on NY or NJ and not everyone moved here from NY or NJ just more newcomer bashing from the same holier than thou woman lecturing you about it.
  2. will she ever write an article without bashing James Antun and Darren Ascue? The majority elected them, give it a rest already Ms. bleeding heart liberal.

Reading this page is like driving by a car wreck, I know I should not look but . . .

Alyce Parmer
Alyce Parmer (@guest_67803)
1 year ago
Reply to  Dman

You can express your opinion without insulting people for theirs.

Tom smith
Tom smith(@high-n-dry)
1 year ago

This is only part of the discussion. Never mentioned in taxes or collections is the spending side of government. Government doesn’t have to be a proportional growth entity. A good manager should be able to cut operational costs without the threat of decreasing services. Really, it can be done. Cheap talk about parking meters is absurd..

PattyM
Active Member
PattyM(@pattym)
1 year ago
Reply to  Tom smith

Government doesn’t have to be a proportional growth entity” and yet most citizens would say increased population requires increased services such as police, fire, schools, infrastructure (roads, sidewalks, etc.).

DontBlameNYNJ
DontBlameNYNJ (@guest_67792)
1 year ago

The assertion that folks here from New York and New Jersey complain about wanting “more government services” is tiresome, unfounded, in my experience utter nonsense, and reeks of the worst kind of parochialism! We are originally from one of those states and know lots and lots of people on the island who also are. We try to be good stewards of this special place we stumbled across, no differently than the many transplants here from Ohio or metro Atlanta. I can assure you I have never in almost 10 years of being here heard a single NY/NJ native say we wish we had more government services!!! The only good-natured complaint we have is that it’s hard to find good bagels or pizza.

John Goshco
John Goshco (@guest_67798)
1 year ago
Reply to  DontBlameNYNJ

Coastal Pizza comes pretty close.

Alyce Parmer
Alyce Parmer (@guest_67804)
1 year ago
Reply to  DontBlameNYNJ

Didn’t First Love just get a national award of some kind?

DontBlameNYNJ
DontBlameNYNJ (@guest_67839)
1 year ago
Reply to  Alyce Parmer

We love First Love’s pizza! It’s not NY-style but it’s amazing!! And the nicest owners too!

Wende Burdick
Wende Burdick (@guest_69694)
1 year ago
Reply to  DontBlameNYNJ

It’s our favorite pizza in town!

jan ann cote-merow
jan ann cote-merow (@guest_67807)
1 year ago

Thanks for a well written and thought provoking article that certainly rings true.

Paul
Paul (@guest_67812)
1 year ago

Amazing how much less traffic is on the island when public schools are out. All of the congestion and most of the bad driving is missing on the Sadler Road/14th street/8th street corridors this week for example. It be great if our infrastructure kept pace with development and increased population driving onto the island everyday.

Johnny Miller
Johnny Miller (@guest_67819)
1 year ago

This should be required reading for all COFB residents. Well done maim.

Jag
Jag (@guest_67825)
1 year ago

The issue is fairness and the current system is discrimanatory waiting for a class action lawsuit from a smart attorney. Hopefully a local group will evolve to push back on this issue. Comments talk about how the cost of city management is so high that there is no way to lower taxes. I think it is discriminatory the way the property taxes are levied. It is grossly unfair. I am having to consider possibly moving off the Island as my taxes are reaching the level of beach property and I am over 2 miles from the beach. I built a home on the Island to retire but my taxes are 5 times higher than my current home in Georgia located in the fastest growing county and #1 rated schools. My square footage is double that of my Fernandina residence. Officials will say but you have state income taxes and we don’t. Actually, Georgia gave residents a credit this year due to a surplus. So smart management can reduce taxes.

Troy Walker
Troy Walker (@guest_67844)
1 year ago

Paradise went out the window when tourists took precedence over citizens.

John Goshco
John Goshco (@guest_67861)
1 year ago
Reply to  Troy Walker

The TDC does way too good a job>

A2xGator
Active Member
A2xGator(@a2xgator)
1 year ago

For those of you who were not here when the “Save our Homes” amendment was sold to us as a way to keep our homesteads affordably taxed, its’ real purpose was to save people with large homes money. If you have a sprawling home in a white picket fence neighborhood or a beachfront/gated/upscale property your taxes would have ballooned without the change. People in modest homes who have never seen the price appreciation that those others have would save minimally. That was doubled down when they made homestead “portable.”

This is just another welfare for rich people scam sold as something that’s like motherhood and apple pie. Do some stats on homes on either side of Center/Atlantic, east of 8th street for a mile each way and compare them to the “Plantation.” Huge savings for some, not so much for others. Oh yes and renters who constitute more and more of the (unaffordable) housing stock, get nothing