Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Unethical Administrator Demands 16.666% Tax Increase Without Details, Project Approval, Mathematical Accuracy, Logic or Law

Ahead of commission meeting on referendum, details flexible on some sales-tax projects
Posted: June 15, 2015 - 9:20pm
By Steve Patterson
If St. Johns County commissioners decide to send a sales tax referendum to voters, there will still be big questions about what residents would get for their money.
While a list of projects was circulated this month as a draft plan for using tax proceeds, some projects on that list don’t appear to have been proposed before by county officials, and details of them haven’t been spelled out.
Others items on the draft list were priced very differently — some more, some less — when the county wrote capital improvement plans that become master lists of improvements the county wants.
\The 1-cent tax increase that voters would be asked to approve — from 6 cents on the dollar to 7 cents — is meant to pay for capital projects, tangible items like fire trucks and roads that are expected to stay in use for years or decades. Projects like that would usually be listed on the capital improvements plan.
But the draft list produced for the tax plan includes an $8 million item labeled “Ponte Vedra Boulevard rehabilitation” that doesn’t appear to be in the capital plan and $4.2 million for a replacement fire station in St. Augustine Beach that was priced at $2.2 million in the capital plan.
The numbers reflect how complex trying to plan project costs, and still protect taxpayer money, can be.
The combined costs to remake a handful of locally important roads — Roberts Road, Old Moultrie Road, Wildwood Drive, Kings Estate Road — could vary by $25 million or more depending on how tightly project managers cut back to make projects fit inside budget limits.
The county’s capital plan “reflects the most simplified, necessary version of that particular project based on currently available funding,” county spokesman Michael Ryan said, while the draft list shows costs for work that project managers considered right for the job. Ryan noted that some roadwork in the capital plan can be simply first phases of large, more involved projects.
Other projects go over their original budget for other reasons.
Ryan said the St. Augustine Beach fire station cost nearly doubled because a county-city agreement to jointly locate facilities broke down and the county refigured the cost to build something on its own that would house its firefighters and its Marine Rescue operations.
But some budget-tightening that wasn’t figured into the draft plan could become unavoidable after County Administrator Michael Wanchick and a school district representative talk to the County Commission Tuesday about the School Board’s request to split the projected $23.6 million in yearly revenue envisioned if voters approve the referendum.
Although the commission once expected to vote Tuesday on holding a November referendum on the tax — that may wait another two weeks — one member said the roll of $261.5 million worth of projects seemed to be hurried.
“I think it was kind of hastily put in front of us,” said Commissioner Jeb Smith, who said the work list seemed open-ended. “It was very general. ‘Here, we have needs,’ but it was not very specific,” said Smith, a first-term member who had said he would vote against the measure because of pledges he made as a candidate.
Smith, elected last fall, said he thought residents he had talked to recently opposed the sales-tax increase by about a two-to-one margin.
He said opponents seemed adamant, sometimes angry at the possible increase, and that many people who seemed supportive of it were often interested in maintaining county funding for one or two services they considered very important.
The sales-tax was proposed to finance a wide range of services, with about 65 projects outlined on the draft list.
Some projects that made that list are important whether they were on the capitalist or not, Ryan said.
The Ponte Vedra Boulevard work, for example, would correct drainage problems and repair the roadbed in a part of the road where people have kayaked during hard rains.
A neighborhood success story is driving another piece of the draft list, expansion of the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall.
The expansion of the popular music venue is considered important to housing larger audiences needed for some acts, said Ryan Murphy, general manager for the concert hall and the St. Augustine Amphitheater.
Although the draft plan listed a $2.4 million cost for expanding the building, Murphy said there’s no fixed plan for enlarging the building, which would involve adding second-floor seating and elevators.

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