Wanchick offers ray of light for 2010 budget


County Administrator Michael D. Wanchick reports to Historic City News what he calls “good news” for most St. Johns County property owners.

As the County has worked through the early stages of the budget process, including the County Commission setting a tentative millage rate in recent weeks, Wanchick says county staff has spoken of the extreme impact declining property values have on the County’s revenue and ability to provide services.

Most recently, Wanchick has been saying that, even with a millage increase, many property owners will still see their taxes decrease because their taxable value is lower.

Wanchick said the County will experience a net tax decrease, meaning the County will collect fewer taxes than last year and have a budget reduced by more than $23 million.

This week our Office of Management and Budget finished an in-depth analysis of how the tentative millage rate will impact specific County residents, and the results were a ray of light amidst the gloomy information we have become accustomed to sharing during the past several months.

Wanchick’s weekly newsletter follows:

As our Office of Management and Budget has considered the tentative millage rate, they performed an in-depth analysis comparing last year’s millage rate and taxable value of County properties to this year’s tentative millage rate and taxable value of properties. What they found is good news for most property owners. Even with a millage increase of 0.75 mills, on average 81 percent of County taxpayers will still receive a tax decrease, and another 12 percent will have a tax increase of less than $25. This means only 7 percent of taxpayers will see any substantial increase, mostly residents who have received the most benefit under the protection of Save Our Homes. These favorable percentages are based on the tentative millage rate, which may still be reduced before the final budget is adopted in September.

I also wish to provide information in response to criticism about the growth of the overall County budget during the past several years, particularly between 2003 and 2007. It is important to realize the County budget shows all revenues and expenses of the County, of which property tax is a smal portion. In fact, of the total County budget, the percentage of property taxes to total budget has decreased from 26 percent in 2003 to 21 percent for 2010. The major reasons for growth in the overall budget have been long-term borrowing for County infrastructure improvements, growth of the County utility system, and growth of County impact fees – none of which are funded by property taxes.

With population increasing over 50 percent since 2000, the County has responded with expanded fire rescue services, sheriff operations, transportation improvements, libraries, and parks and recreation services. The transition from a volunteer to a fully professional fire force correlates to better service and lower insurance rates for property owners.

Additionally, long-term borrowing funded by sales tax and gas tax (not property tax dollars) has paid for new infrastructure including County detention center improvements, new administration building, the renovated amphitheatre, new Solomon Calhoun Community Center, new parks, libraries and transportation improvements. Admittedly the new administration building was opened at a less than ideal time, but it had been planned for several years and is built to accommodate County population growth through the next 50 years. The former administrative area was always planned as an interim measure until the County’s court system needed to fully utilize their complex, which the County is legally required to provide.

It’s sometimes easy to generally criticize government and how they use tax dollars, but remember the County provides numerous services used daily by our citizens. We provide public safety and emergency response services, recreation at your local park, cultural events at the amphitheatre, as well as libraries services, water and sewer, garbage collection/recycling, environmental services, social services, road/sidewalk/drainage improvements, beach services, animal control, and much more. We encourage you to ask yourself what is the value of having these reliable services?

As we said during our recent Town Hall meetings, for every $100 of property tax you pay, the County Commission only receives $40. Of that $40, about 36 percent is allocated to sheriff operations, 24 percent to fire rescue operations, 13 percent for transportation improvements, 8 percent for park and library operations, and the remaining 19 percent distributed among general government administration, health and human services, environmental services, and economic development.

Although the County has made numerous cuts during the past 3 years, including eliminating 188 staff positions and a $23 million budget reduction since last year, a $35 million shortfall is projected by 2011. A proposed County millage increase is necessary to maintain essential services, primarily fire rescue and sheriff operations. Because County taxable property value has fallen 12 percent this year, the tentative millage increase will not significantly impact the average County taxpayer. As I said earlier, 93 percent of County taxpayers will still have a tax decrease or an increase of less than $25. If the County does not raise millage, many County services would have to be dismantled, particularly fire rescue services, at a time when demand is increasing.

I again thank you for supporting the County Commission during a time of unprecedented economic challenge. We have heard from hundreds of residents and appreciate the community dialogue as we make difficult decisions. Your TRIM notices will be coming in the mail during the next few weeks, which will show the maximum taxes for your specific property under the proposed millage. We also encourage you to attend the budget public hearing on September 15th at 5:30 pm in the County Auditorium.