County response to budget comments: Part 2

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.

The vast majority of citizens oppose this tax hike. Whatever tax hikes are put on the ballot in St. Johns County, they are defeated.

Response:

• The feedback received throughout the Town Hall and budget process has not shown the vast majority of citizens oppose the millage increase. The most vocal residents at the Town Hall meetings were opposed, but dozens of emails and subsequent public meetings have shown a diversity of opinions and viewpoints.

• Tax issues that have been put on the ballot in St. Johns County typically have related to an increase in the County sales tax for County infrastructure improvements and not for maintaining County services. Maintaining County services is not generally a ballot question and would potentially involve much larger citizen constituencies.

In 2008 the County Commission moved into a brand new $16.5 million, 100,000 square foot palace.

Response:

• The new County Administration building resulted from the need to expand court services. The previous facility that housed County Administration was a part of the courthouse complex and was only temporary until needed for court service expansion.

• The County is mandated by the State to provide space for court services.

• The new County Administration building was built with County sales tax bond funds and was intended to consolidate County administrative services and address potential County growth through its expected 40+ year life.

• The facility appears larger than it is due to being built up high with a parking garage as the base floor. This was done to ensure government operations can continue even in a level 3 storm surge.

The Commissioners’ Budget for next year runs 338 pages. It would appear the objective is to confuse residents, rather than inform them.

Response:

• The Commissioners’ Budget was intended primarily to give Commissioners the maximum line item detail of the recommended budget for all County funds for their review. In the interest of transparency, that same information was posted on the County website.

• The County budget is otherwise, in fact, a complicated budget primarily due to required compliance with governmental accounting standards and the range of County services being provided.

The Budget includes a 22% increase for Administration (compared to 2010).

Response:

• Certain areas of the County budget do show unusual increases, but generally there are underlying reasons for such increases. In 2011 the County department of Intergovernmental Services (primarily GTV) was consolidated with County Administration for better efficiency.

• As a comparison, in 2010 the budget was $168,757 for Intergovernmental Services and $888,622 for County Administration for a total of $1,057,379. In comparison, the recommended County budget for the consolidated County Administration in 2012 is $1,014.933, an overall cost decrease.

There is a 227% increase for Economic Development.

Response:

• Economic Development is the County Commission’s number one priority. In order to improve the County tax base and relieve the taxation burden on homeowners, it is being recommended that the Commission take the aggressive step of adding a dedicated director of economic development to County staff.

• Approximately $230,000 has been added as an operating budget for a dedicated director, a supporting staff position, and operating expenses in 2012. The long-run financial return is expected to more than justify these new expenditures.

There is a 33% increase for Code Compliance.

Response:

• Codes Compliance had only 6 Code Enforcement Officers to cover a County of 609 square miles in 2010. With the reduction of County building activity, one staff position from Development Review was able to be transferred over to help in Codes Compliance.

• Additionally, the department received a grant that funded another new position for enforcement of new mandated water irrigation regulations.

• The two position increase was largely relative to Code Compliance initially being too small a department to adequately function.

The proposed increase in the fire tax is 21%. This will fund 11 new positions which means that a total of 38 new positions will have been made over the last 5 years. During this time, St. John’s County has shown little growth.

Response:

• The 11 new positions added during 2011 were initially funded by the federal SAFER grant for the first two years.

• Rather than transitioning immediately from a volunteer force to a professional force in the early 2000’s, it was decided that the transition and more importantly the cost of transition would be spread over several years to moderate the financial impact to County citizens.

• In the last 5 years population growth in St. Johns County totals about 12%; however, population grew by more than 50% in the last U.S. Census.

The fire services fund already has a balance of $11 million.

Response:

• The fire services fund actually has a beginning balance projected at $14 million, but will decline by $3 million to $11 million. This balance will decline again by $3 million to $8 million and only last two more years without the proposed millage increase.

• The County has consistently stated over the past few years that reserves in the fire fund would be depleted in 2013 and fire services would become involvement with additional revenue.

• Operating off reserve funds is not sustainable and the structural deficit therefore must be addressed.

There is a figure of $30 million for “radio conversion”. Despite requests from participants at our meeting, the County has still not supplied details of such radio conversion.

Response:

• $30 million was an early estimate of the cost of an 800 Megahertz emergency radio communication system with associated towers and land.

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