Who pays taxes in Fernandina Beach? An Opinion

Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
July 27, 2020

A person doesn’t know how much he has to be thankful for until he has to pay taxes on it.

This is the time of year when irate taxpayers gird their loins to do battle with the local taxing authorities.  Yet amid the demands for lower taxes, often overlooked are the vast numbers of people who stay quiet and below the radar on the topic. I had always attributed their silence to an acknowledgment that they understand it takes money to pay for all the services that add up to what we collectively term “quality of life.”

But a recent look at numbers provided by the Nassau County Property Apppraiserr have given me a better reason.  Approximately 9900 properties were listed on a spreadsheet reflecting 2019 taxes paid to the City of Fernandina Beach.  The median tax levied on a property in the City was $1,120 — or $3.07 per day.  By taking advantage of early payment discount, this property owner paid $1,075 — further reducing the daily tax for living in the City to $2.95.

Isn’t it worth $3 per day to live in Fernandina Beach?

And it gets even better for many people:

  • 62 % (about 6,200 residential property owners) pay up to $4 per day
  • 51 % (about 5,100) pay up to $3 per day
  • 34 % (about 3,400) pay up to $2 per day

Around 74 percent of City property owners — 7,300 — paid $5 or less per day in property taxes.  In some cases the amount paid was even discounted because taxes were paid early. 

Even at five bucks a day, Fernandina Beach property taxes hardly seem onerous for all the services and benefits residents enjoy.  Especially when you consider that Floridians are not required to pay state income taxes.  So if residents fall within that 74 percent, they probably don’t want to talk about how little they really pay for the benefits of living in Fernandina Beach.  They understand that it would be difficult to find another city where they could live this well on five bucks a day in taxes.

The chart below presents a breakdown of 2019 tax assessments by numbers of property owners at various tax levels.  Note that the highest residential tax paid is $27,865.  Taxes over and above that amount are paid by commercial or industrial property owners.


Many of the complaints over City property taxes come from recent arrivals who comprise that remaining 26 percent, meaning they pay higher taxes because the appraised value of their homes is closer to market value. Other complaints come from residents who do not understand their tax bills. Many people just look at the bottom line of total taxes due because that’s the amount that is paid to the Tax Collector.  But that amount includes:  Nassau County tax (33% ), state and local School Board taxes (35.7% ),  Amelia Island Beach MSTU (the sand tax)(0.5%), St. Johns Water Management District Tax (1.1%), Florida Inland Navigation District (FIND) tax (0.1%), Amelia Island Mosquito Control District tax (0.6%), and Fernandina Beach Voter Approved Debt (bond debt to purchase land for Greenway) (0.7%).  The percents in parentheses represent what portion of my tax bill goes to each tax.

Local governments in Florida, including the School Districts, have their own unique problems.  But they are hampered in their ability to solve those problems by funding mandates that get pushed down to the local level by the Legislature and the Governor.  Tallahassee sets the policy, and local governments must find the money to implement those policies, often redirecting money from other local needs.  While localities receive some funding from sales tax and gas tax receipts, most of the money needed to both meet local needs and to enact programs or policies demanded by local citizens comes from property taxes.

We Floridians are happy to take advantage of some of those changes passed down from Tallahassee, like the $25,000 tax exemptions for homesteading and for being Senior Citizens.  But with each exemption we receive, local governments are challenged to make up the difference in their own Budgets by delaying capital improvements, increasing fees or raising property taxes.

Another reason local governments must consider raising taxes relates to a Constitutional Amendment passed in 1994, which became effective the following year. Known as the ‘Save Our Homes’ amendment, 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. This means that despite rising market value of their homes, homesteaded property taxes can only be increased 3 percent per year.  Subsequently, the Legislature even limited the growth of assessed value of non-homestead properties to less than 10% each year. The year of 2008 is the base year for this limitation, and implementation began for the 2009 Tax Roll.

And now homestead tax breaks have even been made portable, cutting further into local government revenue.

Below are a few examples showing how all these benefits and exemptions play out. The longer a property has been homesteaded, the lower the taxes paid.  Hence, the low assessed value for the examples from Downtown and Old Town.  All but the Southside property have subtracted $50,000 in exemptions from their assessed value.  That property qualified for the first $25,000 exemption but not the second because the property was not assessed above $50,000.  The areas of newer development have taken advantage of the $50,000 exemptions, but the difference between market value and assessed value is not as dramatic as in the older neighborhoods.

The bottom line is that no one likes to pay taxes, but everyone wants to enjoy a good quality of life in Fernandina Beach.  Because no one has yet invented a mechanism to convert marina dredge into gold, someone must pay for the excellent public safety, streets and recreation amenities that we all enjoy.  And for the most part, that someone is us, the taxpayers.  

Recent transplants to Florida are known to scratch their heads over Florida election laws and Florida tax laws with good reason:  they can be confusing, complicated and often make no sense.  But they are the law.  So neighbors with the same size property and the same size household can pay widely different taxes, depending on how long they have lived there.  No one thinks that’s fair, but that’s the way it is.  No conspiracies or evil geniuses at work.  Just plain savvy politics by the folks in Tallahassee.

There may be liberty and justice for all, but there are tax breaks only for some. ~Martin A. Sullivan

[Some things to keep in mind:  any computational errors in this article are the fault of the author, not the Property Appraiser.  And the numbers are intended to represent the City of Fernandina Beach, not just anyone who has 32034 Zip Code.  Although it’s been said many times many ways, if you do not see a line for Fernandina Beach on your tax statement, you are not a City resident.]

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Frank Quigley
Active Member
Frank Quigley(@frank-quigley)
3 years ago

Ms. Thamm, you are considered the most knowledgeable and certainly most prolific watcher of the local scene. Your analysis here is spot on, although I admit I bristle at the “newcomer” comments. I grew up in Orlando in a multi-generational Florida family – at a time that “Disney” was a Sunday evening television show. My dad grew up in Miami Beach in the 30’s. So I get how newcomers are supposed to be seen but not heard. “They just don’t know.”

But your analysis/conclusion misses the core issues. First, yes my taxes in Nassau County are going up and my Nassau County School Board taxes are going up. Nassau County is experiencing a growth boom and much of everything “off the island” is under-developed regarding infrastructure. Impact fees will help pay for roads,schools, utilities and so forth. But with an expanding population there will be an ongoing increase in demand for services. I don’t especially like it that I’ll fund services that I will probably not benefit from, but I get it. Second, it’s the same for the schools. With an expanding school population and mandated security rules – plus the money that will be needed to cope with the COVID need for sanitization, etc. – I get it. These governmental units also need to be closely watched and scrutinized but their situations are unique from the City of Fernandina Beach.

Which does bring us to Fernandina Beach. We moved here in 2016 and find services to be quite good. I don’t hear too much complaint, locally, about this. Our City Manager touts that his satisfaction poll has always shown that people are quite happy with City services. But taxes HAVE gone up, and spending, in this short period. Full time employees in the General Fund went from 139 in FY 2016/2017 to 160.5 in FY 2019/2020. If the 2019/2020 millage rate “holds” at 5.8553, it will be advertised as a 10.2% increase over the rollback rate. 

So – with the backdrop that overall tax bills will go up why is it wrong to question what is planned in Fernandina Beach? What’s wrong with asking for a transparent budgeting process that shows fiscal rigor? 

You should be able to describe – especially in light of this ongoing satisfaction with services – what ARE the drivers of the need to spend more if things are already just fine? What are the statistics to show how service level/quality has improved? What are Fernandina Beach taxpayers getting that they didn’t already get? Is emergency response time better? Are City departments responding to residents and businesses with better speed and quality? Is the sanitation department doing a measurably better job? 

I’d be very open to seeing your research and analysis regarding how this increased spending is justified.

Perry Anthony
Perry Anthony (@guest_58501)
3 years ago
Reply to  Frank Quigley

Great job Frank, your attitude is the driving force behind the Common Sense movement. A great point about improvements to city services. I can tell you from my recent experiences, the city services are no better, in fact, they are worse now. Recently, I called both animal control and code enforcement to file complaints. Local city Animal control sent me to county services, even though I live downtown in the city, so I had to call them back and straighten them out. The new employee I talked with at Code Enforcement told me to contact the FBPD, but I flat-out told her she was wrong, that it was their job to take care of my specific complaint, which was a local downtown resident allowing someone to live in their 35-ft. 5th wheel RV trailer across the street from the library. Imagine that, the city employees have “NO” clue what-so-ever what their job is and what area it covers. Who’s to blame for this, why isn’t this issue addressed, seems like there could be a big training issue. As far as the trash pickup goes, we still have serious issues with Advanced Disposal that the city manager never addressed years ago, when I brought it to his attention!!!

DAVID LOTT(@dave-l)
3 years ago

Suanne, an interesting piece that certainly helps explain why two houses side by side can pay a big difference in taxes. I think the “outrage” over the City’s current budget proposal is a reaction tof the unbridled spending over the last several years during good economic times. There was an opportunity to focus on maintenance requirements of beach walkovers, buildings, pension plans and other infrastructure rather than personnel additions and other discretionary spending. An effective 10% increase over the rollback rate when the consumer price index of inflation was less than 3%. An increase in staff of 33 FTEs (18%) since 2017 (only 5 of those from Police and Fire). All of this when the COVID pandemic has thrown the strong economic growth over the last five years into reverse with many losing their job or seeing their retirement accounts lose value.

The $/day argument is mathematically correct but one that is fraught with logical absurdity. One could easily turn that same argument around and say that if the City could cut its budget by only fifty cents/day for every residential property, that would cut $1.8 million dollars from the budget. If less than $5/day is so meaningless to the average residential property owner to pay, what about cutting out fifty cents/day of that $5 to the city? After all, that is only an apple pie at McDonald’s.

And of course you haven’t discussed commercial property taxes. It is well proven that commercial properties contribute more in taxes and fees than they use in services. For that reason, it is beneficial to have a good mix of commercial business within a community. They don’t qualify for any homesteaded or most other exemptions so the higher tax rates cut into their profit margin. If the city’s tax rates are higher than unincorporated areas, there is a disincentive to locate in the city.

But you may be right in your statement that the vocal are a minority. I guess we will see what happens at the budget workshops and the final outcome of the budget. Personally, I have believe that the City needs to craft a budget based on austerity as it did during the 2009 – 2013 Great Recession period as that is what FB might be facing along with the rest of the state and country..

Perry Anthony
Perry Anthony (@guest_58500)
3 years ago
Reply to  DAVID LOTT

I couldn’t agree with you more Dave.

Nichols Velvet
Nichols Velvet (@guest_58467)
3 years ago

Thanks for all the statistics but no thanks. Bottom line, 10 years ago I came to Fernandina Beach and invested a lifetime of savings into rental properties rehabbing them and providing housing at a reasonable cost. What do I get in return? A doubling of my taxes. I also got a doubling of the amount of people self-medicating and directing where our city government should go in the service sector. Quite frankly all I need are the beaches and the greenway I don’t need another city park, more sidewalks streetlight or a committee. What I really don’t need is another $50,000 study and survey on how we can get the Mirena up and running again. Perhaps sending the manager to Washington to get a check from FEMA would be money better spent.

Perry Anthony
Perry Anthony (@guest_58499)
3 years ago
Reply to  Nichols Velvet

Yes Nicolas, maybe he should bring an “APOLOGY” letter along with him to. FYI, in his last in-person meeting with the FEMA representative, when they came here for their last marina repair inspection, he flat-out told them he didn’t trust them, and the only reason they were here, was to find a way to get out of paying our claim. What I would like to know, is “WHY” this “FACT” was swept under the rug and he wasn’t reprimanded for it. Now we are looking to hire an ASSISTANT CITY MANAGER!!!

Mark Tomes
Noble Member
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
3 years ago

Thanks for putting these figures in terms of the daily rate; that gives it more relevance and ease of understanding. Three or four bucks a day to have the privilege of living in this beautiful space with great people is awesome. Regarding the city budgets, personnel and staff are always very expensive, but they give people jobs and a decent life and keep the economy rolling. I haven’t been following all of some of the other major expenses, but I’m glad some people are and examining decisions made by the commissioners; transparency and accountability is key. Finally, It is not just about us as individuals, but we live in a society together. Everyone deserves dignity and respect.

Christine Harmon
Christine Harmon (@guest_58471)
3 years ago

Thank you, Suanne for your article based upon data and logic. I expect my taxes to rise as the community grows and demands for city services increase. “New residents pay new local income taxes and motor vehicle taxes. New people and businesses pay more charges, fines and fees. But these new people and businesses also create new costs. New businesses and housing developments may require new roads, sewers, police and fire protection. New residents may demand new parks. Greater traffic congestion may require more roads, traffic lights and police patrols. More children in schools may require more teachers and even new school buildings.

The fiscal impact of new development compares these new revenues to these new costs. If new revenues exceed new costs, the fiscal impact is said to be positive. The local government can more than meet new demands for services, and (perhaps) provide a tax reduction for existing taxpayers. If new revenues fall short of new costs, however, the fiscal impact is negative. The local government must raise taxes to meet new service demands, and (perhaps) reduce the quantity or quality of existing services.” This from an article on the fiscal impact of new development written by an economics professor at Purdue University.

DAVID LOTT(@dave-l)
3 years ago

Christine, the rationale you cite from Purdue is certainly applicable to NEW development of which there is very little in Fernandina Beach since the city is some 90+% developed. What you generally have in the city with the “new” folks moving in is they are replacing “old” folks that are moving out. Therefore there is no increase in traffic, water and sewer usage and unless the “new” folks tend to be criminals or arsonists, no increased need for police and fire services. For the little NEW development there is, the City levies significant impact fees that are intended to pay for any increases in capacity needed for roads, utilities, parks and other infrastructure so that the existing residents don’t bear that cost.

Tom Smith
Tom Smith(@tom-s)
3 years ago

Although an informative article, in short, I believe the citizens are taxed enough. If you do not place constraints on local politicians they will spend every penny you have. Of course for the benefit of the City.

bob carter
bob carter (@guest_58474)
3 years ago

The only people that approve of new taxes are those with the money to freely pay them. This is only resulting in hardships for those of little means that had hoped to live here. Well heeled folks from elsewhere are fully able to pay whatever the City asks for it pet projects, burgeoning payroll benefits and retirement packages.

Yes, it’s nice here. That’s no reason to spend like a drunken sailor on shore leave.

Al MacDougall
Al MacDougall (@guest_58475)
3 years ago

I have been “homesteaded” for 13 years and my taxes have shot up 50%.

By ANY measure, the city is guilty of run-away spending. It will stop.

Telling me that paying $5 a day is a bargain is frankly insulting and disrespectful.

How do YOU know what is reasonable? We each judge for ourselves.

Joe Blanchard
Joe Blanchard(@jlblan2)
3 years ago

I’m a little confused by the percentages listing for the amount of daily taxes paid. The percentages total 221 percent. I always thought that 100 percent was the maximum, but I’m just a physicist so what do I know. When people explain the taxes paid by citizens of Fernandina Beach they never show the whole picture. There are many taxing authorities and in some cases, we are paying twice for the same services, ie. Fire, Police (Sheriff and City Police), Code Enforcement, and so on. This duplication of effort is ridiculous. The highest impact on taxes is the School Board. The reasoning behind the different property exemptions is that those who have just arrived are paying for their increased impact on the community where long timers have already paid over the years.

Dave Lott
Dave Lott(@dave-l)
3 years ago
Reply to  Joe Blanchard

Joe, you are not being taxed double for fire, police, code enforcement and animal control as the county’s costs for these services is carved out of the county tax’s allocation to city property owners and the remainder is shown on your tax bill as a MSTU (municipal service taxing unit). There is a portion of the sheriff’s costs allocated to city taxpayers since their deputies serve warrants in the city and operate the jail where city criminals are housed. This is the same as the “sand tax” paid by all island residents (except those already being charged under the AI Shore Stabilization Association).

Coleman Langshaw
Coleman Langshaw (@guest_58479)
3 years ago

I am one of the homogenized new-comers/old-timers: a transplanted damn Yankee (and damn proud of it) and a resident of Fernandina for 39 years (and damn proud of that too!). I own two properties: one as my homesteaded property and pay under $1,000/year, and the other which I rent, and pay over $9600/year. I think Dr. Doolittle would call me a push-me-pull-you animal.

Do I hate paying taxes? Yes and no.

Yes, I hate to pull money out of my wallet for something that seems exorbitant, but no, I don’t mind paying for something that has great value to me.

After reading Mrs. Thamm’s column and the responses, I felt compelled to weigh in.

First of all, I agree with what she stated, we live in a great place and the taxes are the cost of maintaining the quality of life. If one is a newcomer and has heartburn over it, I am sorry, but we who have lived here for decades have paid a lot of taxes over those years, and they have increased because of the impacts of the arrival of newcomers and the growth from tourism.

It is a mistaken analysis that newcomers moving in are just replacing oldtimers that are moving out, I for one,am proof positive that I have not moved out, but have been significantly impacted by both tax increases and overgrowth and strains on services.

The growth may be limited within the city limits of Fernandina, but that only encompasses half of the island and a far small portion of the county.The growth on the island has blown up over the decades. When I moved here, 14th Street, for example was just a two-lane road entirely. There was no shopping center at the corner of 14th & Sadler, traffic was about a quarter of what we deal with today. Off-island, A1A (now more commonly referred to as SR 200) used to be a fast, easy and safe road towards I-95. in fact, the trip from the bridge to I-95 took approximately 15-20 minutes, and the JIA was a 30-minute ride.

To say that the growth here is static or level, and the associated impacts are minimal, is not correct or factual.

Here are some statistics:

In 1980 (the year before I moved here permanently), the population of Nassau County was 32,894; in 1990 it was 43,941;2010 it was 73,513; and this year its estimated to be 91,768. in nearly 40 years it is closing in being THREE times what it was when I first took up permanent residence. 40 years ago, we welcomed tourists, but we also breathed a sigh of relief when tourist season was over, and the community returned to the calm and friendly place we all knew and loved. Those days are long gone.

All of this costs us a lot of money, and the taxes have risen accordingly, however impact fees, etc. have not, nor will not, cover the associated expenses of the growth, nor has the supposed increase in the tax base been close to offsetting the increased costs of government.

I get really frustrated when Johnny-come-latelys complain ablout paying supposedly higher taxes than long-timers, when in reality, we long-timers have more than paid our fair share, and much of it has been to offset the growth impacts.

Argue all you want, and complain all you want, but don’t think that somehow you pay more and receive less for it than the rest of us. And don’t blame just the City or just the County, or any particular taxing authority, blame all of us voters for wanting unchecked growth, but not willing to accept that there is going to be a financial impact that we all have to bare.

The only true solution to is to control growth and its associated impacts. Personally, I long for the days of when I visited Fernandina before I moved here for good (back in the 1960’s and ’70’s) when there was a drawbridge over the ICW, a flashing light at the intersection of A1A and US 17.

Maybe we should build a toll bridge, like Sannibel and Captiva. They still have many tourists, but the negative impact to the quality of life is diminished by the lessening impact of unchecked growth.

I know, I can hear the screaming now…We are not Sannibel or Captiva, but you know what? We aren’t Fernandina anymore anyway, that horse left the barn decades ago.

Now we are just stuck with paying for the profiteering of scalawags and carpetbaggers for times past.

Dave Lott
Dave Lott(@dave-l)
3 years ago

But Coleman, the strain is being created by growth outside of the city limits either on the south end or off island. And remember, the main roads on the island (A1A – 8th, Atlantic, N & S. Fletcher; 14th Street, Sadler, Jasmine, AI Parkway) are all maintained by the State or County, not by the City. You can’t argue that the city is largely developed out, so people coming in are having to replace people leaving unless there is an increase in density where a single-family property becomes multi-family. There has been a limited amount of that with some of the new hotels, but it is minimal.

There should not be any increases in density but there will be constant pressure to do so as there was in the downtown district. We have seen what that has done. The supporters will say it has improved the vitality of the downtown historic district. The critics will say it has increased congestion and driven up the price of real estate making it less and less likely for there ever to be any new “affordable” housing within the City. Fortunately, the City has put into place a number of restrictions that attempt to limit increased density, but the developers constantly seek to weaken those restrictions and, often times it seems, with the support of city staff.

You come from a family with generations of history in this area and have that valuable perspective. Don’t let FB turn into a Saint Simons Island where unbridled growth changed it from a coastal village to an totally upscale resort community. We saw that change happening and is why we sold and moved to FB in 2011.

Dave Scott
Dave Scott (@guest_58480)
3 years ago

Suanne, your defense of the city’s taxation and spending sounds like you’re writing from the Chip Ross for Commissioner Headquarters, as your explanation comes entirely out of Ross’s talking points.

Over the past 5 years property tax receipts increased 48.5%, a clear demonstration of runaway taxation and spending. The rollback rate generates almost $14.4million, which should be plenty. And adding three or more new fulltime staff is unthinkable at this time when city citizens are suffering. There should be an immediate hiring freeze. In addition examine the staff that’s been added over the past 3-5 years and determine where some positions may be cut. There’s more, much more and you know it. Why doesn’t the Observer just come out and endorse Ross?  

Perry Anthony
Perry Anthony (@guest_58493)
3 years ago
Reply to  Dave Scott

You said a mouthful, I couldn’t agree with you more. I don’t know about you, but I am done with Chip Ross, he voted to INCREASE the property taxes!!!

Trudie Richards
Trudie Richards (@guest_58481)
3 years ago

Thank you so much, Suanne, for this piece. I hope everyone reads your analysis, thinks about it, and pays without dissent. We are indeed lucky.

Perry Anthony
Perry Anthony (@guest_58492)
3 years ago


John Brooks
John Brooks (@guest_58488)
3 years ago

if u like tax increases and think the government is TOO small and spends TOO little…. they are still selling property up North… You folks make us laugh. I challenge you to challenge your rep to spend less. It’ll be a short convo.

Philip Griffin
Philip Griffin (@guest_58489)
3 years ago

This article does a disservice to all taxpayers in Fernandina Beach. The writer used a typical bureaucratic explanation that we should all be happy to live in a place and our taxes are only $3 a day. This is insulting, particularly in a time of chrisis when funds will surely be diverted to much needed social services. The goal of Common Sense Fernandina Beach is to highlight the massive growth of local government in the past 5 years. The goal of government should be to offer the highest amount of service and the best quality of life possible for the least amount of money. Trivializing efforts to see that Commissioners are held accountable to do ask the tough questions and oversee the budget shows a lack of respect for residents and hard working business owners, who are suffering immensely though no fault of their own. Just because the Florida legislature has skewed tax burdens onto businesses, commercial property owners and renters does not mean that taxes are not too high. Reminds me of the great Alaskan, Chilkoot Charlie, who famously said “We cheat the other guy and pass the savings on to you”.

Perry Anthony
Perry Anthony (@guest_58490)
3 years ago
Reply to  Philip Griffin

I couldn’t have said it better Phil. Your in the real estate business and you know how this hurts your business, trying to explain to new transplants to the area, why our property taxes are so high here.