Historic City News has received a booklet of comments from residents who have asked questions regarding the proposed St. Johns County budget that have been answered by county administration and last revised on August 8, 2011.
Due to the volumes of calls and inquiries regarding the county budget, Historic City News has worked with District 1 County Commissioner Cyndi Stevenson to distribute these responses to commonly asked questions.
“We continue to work for ways to reduce the millage rate,” Stevenson told Historic City News reporters. “After 5 years of reductions it is becoming increasingly difficult to find significant reductions without reducing services that many in our community have come to value, especially in these difficult economic times.”
Historic City News will compile a list of these responses, each day for the next week.
“If there were no increase in the fire millage, for example, it could result in the closure of multiple fire stations and longer response times,” Stevenson said. “This has an implication for homeowners and businesses insurance rates.”
Historic City News appreciates the efforts of county staff and Commissioner Stevenson to help answer these questions about the county budget and fiscal stewardship.
Rather than raising $12 million in additional taxes, why not cut 2% across each department in the $582 budget?
• The $12 million shortfall relates to only two of the County’s 76 funds: $8 million shortfall for the $157 million General Fund and the $4 million shortfall for the $36 million Fire District Fund.
• Under Governmental Accounting requirements, other County funds cannot be used to transfer funds to the General Fund or Fire District Fund.
• As explained in the County’s Town Hall presentations, once Constitutional Officers and other public safety services are removed from the General Fund, the Board is left with about $45 million left in which to find $12 million of cuts for an equivalent 27% reduction.
• A 27% reduction translates to significant cuts in County services as stated in the Town Hall presentations.
This is the fourth time in four years that the Commissioners have tried to raise taxes.
County property taxes have decreased every year since 2007.
• The County did have a millage rate increase in 2009 of 0.64 mills and is asking for another millage rate increase in 2011 of up to 0.75 mills. However, the County also lowered the millage rate in 2007 by 0.93 mills and had no millage rate changes in 2008 and 2010, despite decreases in property values.
• Additionally, during the past 25 years, St. Johns County has raised the millage rate only 4 times (2012 will be the 5th), while during the same period the millage rate has been decreased 11 times.
• In other years, the County has asked for consideration of an additional one cent sales tax for infrastructure or capital project funding, particularly for road improvements, which is decreasing to an otherwise low level for the County.
Nearby Clay County has a similar population but much lower government spending, despite the fact that they don’t benefit from as much tourist tax revenue.
• St. Johns County maintains a number of government funds that Clay County lacks. Very few of these funds involve property taxes. The largest single difference is that St. Johns County operates a County Water/Sewer system (utility) and Clay County does not. The St. Johns County Utility funds account for more than $143 million in the St. Johns County FY 2011 budget.
• There are also several St. Johns County funds which have their own source of funding other than property taxes that Clay County lacks: for example, Impact Fee funds to address the cost of new development, Community Based Care (foster care), County Amphitheatre, County Tree Bank, Beach Re-nourishment, County Convention Center, Beach Services, etc.
• St. Johns County has significantly more tourism than Clay County, and its Tourist Development Fund is 6.5 times larger than Clay County’s (this is paid by tourist via bed tax, not by residents).
• St. Johns County also has 42 miles of beaches and 34 miles of interstate highway that Clay County does not have.
• In addition, St. Johns County has been transitioning from a volunteer to a professional fire services force.
• In addition, while the total population may be similar, St. Johns County has been growing much faster than Clay County during the past decade.
The County budget has tripled since 2000, while the population has only increased by 53%. The County budget is spending twice as much for every resident as they did in 2000. What are they getting in return for this?
• The County budget increase is for reasons that have nothing to do with millage rates or property taxes and have been repeatedly explained.
• Consider the following reasons since 2000: County Utility Services growth including the purchase of the Ponte Vedra Utility System (funded through utility charges, not property taxes); new County funds that have their own revenue source such as Community Based Care (foster children), the County Amphitheatre, and the County Transit System (Sunshine Bus); the transition of Fire Rescue to a professional force; the double-counting use of Internal Service funds under governmental accounting; and the prudent buildup of the General Reserve to minimum governmental standards all are primary reasons for the County budget increase.
• Additionally, inflation growth (CPI) between 2000 and 2010 was over 26%.
• Since 2007 the County budget has been reduced by $151 million or 20.5%.
St. Johns County Commissioners engage in wasteful spending and use scare tactics to scare residents into supporting their tax hikes.
• The County has gone through five years of budget reductions. Further significant budget cuts can only be achieved through reductions in County services. Such prioritized service reductions have been proposed by County department heads, who are certainly the experts in their department operations. A proposed reduction in such services can be seen as scary. Just because it is seen as scary, does not mean scare tactics are being used.
It’s wrong to raise taxes during a recession.
• It is certainly with the utmost reluctance that a millage rate increase is proposed in such an economic climate. However, it may be even worse to propose a reduction in County services given the impact of the service reduction and that the tax increase will be modest in overall effect.
This new tax will hurt property values.
• Given the modest overall effect of the millage rate increase, it is unlikely to have much overall impact on property values. The County millage rate will remain relatively low in comparison to other Florida counties.
The County Commission is hurting businesses and hurting families by raising taxes.
• The County Commission is seeking a prudent way to address the proper funding of County services by proposing a modest tax increase.
• The alternative reduction in County services would also hurt both businesses and families. In some cases, such as closing fire stations, the increase in insurance premiums due to closed fire stations may outweigh the proposed millage rate increase.
Photo credits: © 2011 Historic City News staff photographer