Meet Liberty County, the Impoverished Panhandle Jurisdiction That Jeff Vinik Hopes to Emulate


Liberty County Courthouse in Bristol

By Jim Bleyer

Bristol, FL—Declaring Florida’s Liberty County as sleepy surely is an understatement. Comatose would be a more accurate description of this rural outpost 50 miles west of Tallahassee.

The Apalachicola National Forest provides a canopy of longleaf pine for fully half of Florida’s least populous county.

Liberty has the highest sales tax in Florida at 8 percent.  It could get company in November if Hillsborough County voters approve a one percent increase in its sales tax ostensibly for transit.

The regressive measure, being heavily promoted by developer and former hedge-fund manager Jeff Vinik, will hurt low-income families, communities of color, and retirees. Known more popularly as The Vinik Tax, it is essentially a bailout for his financially troubled downtown Water Street Tampa project.

Liberty County, sparse and lacking wealth, earmarks a one-half percent tax for school capital outlay and another half percent to provide funding for Liberty County Volunteer Fire Department Services.  Those are essentials and not aimed at rescuing a member of the upper class.

Estimated 2017 population there: 8,242, eight people per square mile.  Liberty is 76 percent Caucasian,  18 percent African American.  Fifteen percent have an advanced degree.  Health care outcomes are uniformly below state and national averages.

Poverty pervades every cranny.  In this barely visible economy, per capita income was $17,225, according to most recent stats.  About 16.80 percent of families and 19.90 percent of the population are below the poverty line.

Plenty of evangelicals here.  Mormons, with a robust presence, comprise ten percent of the population.  Trump garnered 77 percent of the vote in 2016; Hillary could not even break 20 percent because of ballots cast for “other.”

Ever since the Civil Rights Bill was enacted in 1964, the only Democratic presidential candidate to gain a majority was Jimmy Carter in 1976 and 1980.  George Wallace received a gargantuan 77 percent in 1968.

The Rev. Elvy E. Calloway is deemed the most famous person in Liberty County history.  After moving to Bristol in 1946,  Calloway, an attorney and a  practitioner of “teleology,” discovered several features in the area that he said matched the Bible’s description of the Garden of Eden.

A significant number of residents commute to Tallahassee as state workers.  With the forest, Torreya State Park, and the banks of the picturesque Apalachicola River dominating the landscape, the area attracts fishermen, campers, hikers, hunters, and kayakers.  The Liberty Correctional Institution, a state prison, is one of the largest employers.

Promotional photo

An underground economy exists because of limited opportunities and the regressive sales tax 14 percent higher than most other Florida counties.  Marijuana growers stake out their plots in unpatrolled areas of the national forest.  They harvest and peddle their modest crops.

After the November election, Hillsborough and Liberty may be inextricably linked as having the highest sales tax in Florida.  Heady company for Hillsborough’s promoters of inequity that believe they can compete with other major U. S. cities as a high-tech incubator and Fortune 500 headquarters.


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