Saturday, June 03, 2017

Challenges for St. Johns County in crafting 2018 budget amplified after eventful 2017 (SAR)

County Administrator MICHAEL DAVID WANCHICK and Sheriff DAVID BERNARD SHOAR work for developers, whom SHOAR calls "nice people." SHOAR and WANCHICK are demonstrably not "nice people" who have repeatedly betrayed the public trust.

Controversial St. Johns County Sheriff DAVID SHOAR (right), f/k/a "HOAR" and his vassal, County Administrator MICHAEL DAVID WANCHICK, a/k/a "MIKEY THE WEASEL" want more of your money without accountability. A budget is a moral document, as Sandra Parks says.
We need police body cameras, an Inspector General, Ombuds and Ethics Commission in St. Johns County -- enough waste, fraud, abuse, misfeasance, malfeasance, nonfeasance, no-bid contracts, flummery, dupery and nincompoopery. Until there's accountability, we don't trust the all-Republican County government's budget machinations any more than we support those by the all-Republican "three men in a room" in Tallahassee.

Posted June 3, 2017 05:19 am - Updated June 3, 2017 05:33 am
Challenges for St. Johns County in crafting 2018 budget amplified after eventful 2017

It’s not so much the challenges have changed, but that they’ve been amplified.

As St. Johns County officials piece together a budget for the 2018 fiscal year, they’re taking into consideration a wealth of directions and requests that have come in from a board that’s seeing more money going out and less coming in.

Officials have said what the budget will look like in 2018 onward could come down to how residents answer one question: “What level of programs and services is the community willing and able to pay for over the next few years?”

Jesse Dunn, director of management and budget for the county, said this year’s focus on the county’s long-term financial health and viability probably comes from “a little bit of everything.”

At various points of frustration over the past year, one or more commissioners have suggested revisiting an increase in the sales tax, considering an increase to the gas tax or bed tax, increasing impact fees, collecting more money upfront from developers for roads and infrastructure, and implementing fees for off-beach parking.

The board has also called for efficiencies such as putting management of the county’s health insurance out to bid in the face of increasing costs. Dunn said most times the county puts something out to bid, it can find some cost savings, adding that the county may also consider a different menu of health care items or an employee contribution in the future.

Hurricane Matthew, a Category 3 storm with a $150 million toll that hit just days into this fiscal year, has also proved to be a litmus test for the county’s overall financial position.

For years, the county has had a policy of tapping into reserves to resolve the General Fund’s structural deficit. Although state and federal agencies are paying most of the way on hurricane relief projects, the county is still often on the hook for a local share. Most of those monies are coming from dwindling reserves.

Dunn said he believes the worst is over, but that $2 million to $3 million could still be needed over the next year, which he added was “not insignificant” by any means.

He said he and Neal Shinkre, director of public works, are looking at ways to replenish the county’s solid waste reserves to prepare for any future need for debris cleanup, which proved a costly aspect of hurricane recovery for the county and a bite that came toward the front end of that process. He said this could probably be done through a nominal surcharge or rate consideration.

“We were fortunate this season,” Dunn said. “We want to be able to respond next year or the year thereafter.”

While reserves appear to have been healthy enough to withstand the costs of Matthew, at least so far, Commission Chair Jimmy Johns has repeatedly asked “What about next time?” To this end, the board gave direction to staff to provide a version of next year’s budget that would not use any reserves.

“No one’s ever said we’re going to take the position of necessarily implementing that, but it’s a good exercise to see,” Dunn said, adding it was likely a combination of the storm and the perspective of a new board that initiated that discussion.

He said the difference between a budget that balances out with some help from reserves and one that stands on its own is cuts, cuts and more cuts.

For instance, of 22 personnel requests across several departments, just two emergency 911 operator positions would be filled (due to a public safety need). Dunn said he put out budget guidelines to all the departments and that even though they were adhered to, he still had to cut back on operations, supplies and contingency funds. He also combed through contractual relationships.

Maintenance continues to get the short end of the stick.

“Really, what we’re doing is we’re deferring our deferred maintenance because we’ve had to pull back on our maintenance costs already,” he said, adding capital replacement is also out of the question for the most part.

The possibility of an extension of the homestead exemption is another headache.

Commissioner Jay Morris at the May 16 meeting said the expansion, assuming it gets voter approval, will “break” the county.

Thanks to the Florida Legislature, voters will decide in November 2018 whether to increase the homestead exemption by $25,000, which could save the average homeowner $200 to $300 a year. Meanwhile, officials say the property tax break could make a more than $9 million dent in the county’s revenue.

“This homestead increase, in my opinion, is going to pass without a problem and, as I say, it could very easily break the county, and I think we need to take a look at it sooner than later,” Morris said.

Johns requested an overview of the potential impact of the property tax break, adding he would rather take a proactive approach to dealing with the situation rather than just hoping it doesn’t pass. He suggested the possibility of “incrementally” tweaking the budget next year and the following year rather than taking “one big hit” in 2020.

If successful at the polls, the exemption expansion would go into effect starting Jan. 1, 2019, and would be felt in the fiscal year budget beginning Oct. 1, 2019.

Dunn said whether there will be any revenue offsets or service reductions to prepare for that blow is going to be up to the commission.

“The potential revenues are still the same ones,” he said. “You’re either talking about a millage, you’re talking about a sales tax, you’re talking about gas tax, or you’re talking about some sort of user fees, or a combination of all those.”

Dunn said he’s also prepared for more cuts, if that’s where the board wants to go, because the county’s already been through the Great Recession and it knows all there is to know about making that adjustment.

“It’s like a $9 million drain on the general fund,” he said of the possible exemption expansion. “When you’re thinking of county services, you’re thinking about the general fund. Take $9 million out of it and you’re talking about a significant change in how St. Johns County would provide services.”

Short-term challenges include shortfalls for fire services as well as transportation and pavement management. There are also the constant demands of a growing population and not enough resources to address them. The main long-term challenge is a 10-year backlog of capital projects in excess of $292 million.

Meanwhile, revenues have not kept up with growth that has already occurred, never mind what’s coming.

According to the Census Bureau, the county has added 45,000 residents since 2010 for a total population of 235,000 (as of July 2016). In 2000, the population was about 125,000.

The influx of people has resulted in increased demand for services like fire and police, health care and road maintenance, but the amount of tax revenue has failed to keep up with the rate of growth. Meanwhile, property values have fluctuated and state laws have changed.

In 2008, initial property tax reform reduced the county’s base-revenue stream by $23.3 million, when the county’s millage rates were decreased from 7.0475 to 6.0991.

Subsequent state amendments to the property tax structure, even factoring in some county millage rate increases, have resulted in continuous annual property tax losses to the county. The county estimates a cumulative loss of $118.4 million since 2008.

The county’s taxable value growth of 22.3 percent in 2006 climbed even higher to 26.7 percent in 2007, but plummeted to 11.2 percent in 2008. There were decreases in value of 5.1 percent in 2009, 12.3 percent in 2010, 10.2 percent in 2011, 5 percent in 2012 and 2.5 percent in 2013. Things picked up slightly with a 2.9 percent increase in 2014, which climbed to 6.2 percent in 2015 and 9.1 percent in 2016. Although it was 8.9 percent in 2017, it’s projected to go as low as 8 percent in 2018.

To further illustrate this point, in 2010, the county collected about $95 million in ad valorem tax revenue. In 2016, with many more residents, the ad valorem tax collection was just $97 million.

A recommended budget is due in July. The board will hold public hearings and adopt a final budget in September. The next fiscal year starts Oct. 1.

1 Comment

Tom Reynolds
LOOKS LIKE THE CURRENT COMMISSION and THE PAST SEVERAL COMMISSIONS HAVE FAILED THE COUNTY RESIDENTS ! WOW ! No one spec of planning for the future of St Johns County. DO NOT FORGET about Old Commissioner Morris giving that statement to the St Augustine Record about GROWING OUR WAY OUT. But that was just when he was running for Re-Election, so untruths are OK for the R voters.


1) Sell the Amphitheater and for a lot of money. The County should not be in the Entertainment Business. And when selling it, make sure the new private owner has to build a High Rise Parking lot.
2) Raise the Bed Tax, I personally raised that issue with the County Commissioners over three years ago. WHAT HAVE THEY DONE ABOUT IT ? TALK .............just .............TALK .............NO ACTIONS BY THE CURRENT and past Commissioners. WHY ? Because there is not a spec of COMMON SENSE or COURAGE between this Commission and several past Commissions.

There is more that could be done. This County needs REAL ELECTED LEADERSHIP. The FOLKS in this County REALIZE IT and Changes will be coming in 2018 !



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