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*|
*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.