Thursday, December 22, 2016

At the Behest of Unknown LLC Investors, Republican Commissioners Wasting Money (Again)

I opposed this $5 million boondoggle -- a road to nowhere, a road we don't need, a road opposed by neighbors, and We, the People are paying some $5 million for right-of-way to two secretive LLCs whose investors are not disclosed.

This is so wrong.

While the Robinsons are graciously donating land for the right-of-way, two LLCs are getting paid for right-of-way to bring people to their remote land, where they will presumably rape the land and make gazillions. It's our money. Every single one of the all-Republican St. Johns County Commissioners erred by not directing the staff to negotiate for a donation and not a sale by Turkey Trot LLC and Star Investors IV LLLP.

Oh, and you and I get to pay $1 million a mile for noise-silencing walls to protect the tender ears of whoever ends up living or working by CR2209.

There was no rush, but someone on the County staff -- that would be County Administrator MICHAEL DAVID WANCHICK -- wanted to take care of their undisclosed friends before Christmas. It's time for him to go.

Posted December 22, 2016 12:02 am
Right-of-way acquisition for C.R. 2209 spurs gas tax talk among St. Johns County commissioners

St. Johns County commissioners on Tuesday approved spending as much as $5 million to acquire about 10.8 miles of 250-foot-wide segments of right-of-way to facilitate future construction of County Road 2209.

But the approvals didn’t come without spurring talk of instituting a five-cent-per-gallon gas tax to catch up with transportation needs, particularly in the fast-growing northwest sector of the county.

The county has long-identified a need to accommodate a north-to-south transportation corridor west of Interstate 95. County staff said that obligation originated from its requirements to mitigate the level of service reductions along I-95 (needed for the state’s approval of projects within the county).

The total acquisition cost for the rights-of-way is anticipated to be less than $5 million and as low as $4.2 million. About $2 million for the project will come from the county’s Road Impact Fees. County staff requested approval to use up to $3 million from the Transportation Trust Fund Capital Reserves (in which there is $10,236,595 available) to secure the remaining funds needed to make the acquisitions.

“For now, we feel comfortable about that,” Neal Shinkre, public works director, told commissioners.

He said despite the price tag and the amount of time it will take for the road to come to fruition, the proposed acquisitions constituted a “proactive mechanism” for the county obtaining what it will eventually need.

Darrell Locklear, assistant county administrator of operational services, stressed the urgency of the matter, adding this was as good a deal as the county could expect to get.

“You’re running out of corridor options,” he told commissioners. “I don’t know of another alignment possible.”

County Administrator Michael Wanchick said whether the county bought the parcels or not wouldn’t make a material difference in the grand scheme of things.

“The numbers are bigger than just this $3 million, not that this is insignificant,” he said. “In the world of transportation and concurrency and construction, $3 million doesn’t get you very far.”

Wanchick said the county has a “predisposition to nail this corridor down,” calling it a “one-time” opportunity to get a crucial aspect of the project nearly complete. He said the county would likely need to have a discussion on where it’s going to find transportation funds in the future.

Commission Chair Jimmy Johns was alone in dissent on motions to transfer the money from reserves and to approve/execute two purchase and sale agreements. All five commissioners voted in favor of accepting a land donation (with strings attached) from Robinson Improvement Company.

Star Investors IV Limited, LLLP, and Star 4 Mitigation, LCC, will sell about 65 acres (2.3 miles of right-of-way) of their property for $2,015,000. The county also agreed to build noise barrier walls along that stretch upon construction of the roadway. Turkey Trot 208, LCC, will sell about 30.61 acres (about 1 mile of right-of-way) of its property for $1,225,000.

Robinson Improvement Company, which owns about 7.4 miles of a 9.6-mile stretch of the C.R. 2209 corridor that runs between C.R. 208 and C.R. 305, agreed to donate the 224 acres in question, albeit with conditions.

The donation hinges on the county sponsoring, preparing and approving a Comprehensive Plan amendment that would change the land use designation on 2,673-plus acres owned by the company north of C.R. 214 to Residential-B, at no cost to the company. The company also agreed no residential units would receive a Certificate of Occupancy prior to Jan. 1, 2026.

County attorney Patrick McCormack said commissioners would be presented with the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment like any other item once the time comes and that any changes wouldn’t come until after that hearing, depending on the outcome.

Upon acquiring the properties, the county will own more than 90 percent of the right-of-way necessary to complete construction of the future roadway. Much of the southernmost and northernmost portions of the corridor have been acquired over the past 10 years.

Discussion on the acquisitions was wide-ranging.

Johns asked how long it took to accumulate the nearly $11 million in transportation reserves to which Shinkre said the number has fluctuated over the past 10 years, mostly downward. Shinkre said reserves were up to around $28 million about 7 or 8 years back, but that they’ve been drawn down consistently since then. Johns then asked if reserves could be used for certain transportation items related to Hurricane Matthew to which Shinkre said yes, should it be the board’s prerogative.

Johns expressed some discomfort about being told on an annual basis there isn’t enough money for maintenance of the roads and then being presented with a plan to spend millions of dollars on a corridor that’s years away from completion. While arguing there seemed to be more immediate needs, he said acquiring the property was a “terrific opportunity” to address long-term challenges.

Commissioner Paul Waldron said he would “hate” to see the county miss the opportunity to get the acquisition and eventual construction done. He referenced a decision about 27 years ago not to extend S.R. 312 further to the north and stressed the need for taking a long-range view.

“It’s scary with the money situation, but we’ll face that when we get to it,” Waldron said.

Commissioner Jay Morris, citing Johns’ concerns with timing, had asked whether the proposals could be pushed back to which county staff said there were risks with not moving forward, including the possibility of the subject properties falling into mitigation banks.

Shinkre said once land goes into a mitigation bank, all sorts of legalities come up and costs can increase exponentially. Commissioner Henry Dean, a former head of the St. Johns River Water Management District, seconded those concerns, citing his experience with similar cases.

Dean said he believed major corporations considering doing business in the county might be turned off by transportation hindrances and a lack of concurrency. He asked staff and fellow commissioners to look at the overall picture and consider possible additional revenue sources, such as a local-option, five-cent-per-gallon gas tax. Commissioners spoke generally in favor of having that discussion in the near future.

Actually, the discussion carried over into commissioners’ closing comments just hours later.

“I do not think this county is financially viable going forward,” Morris said.

He pointed to reserves that could be depleted by 2021, perhaps sooner, and an ever-growing backlog of maintenance and capital projects.

He said despite population growth and property values back on the rise, the county this year is still operating with $60 million less than it was in 2007. He blamed the state’s property tax reform for the county’s inability to grow its way out of its deficits.

“Let’s get something going now, rather than later,” Morris told fellow commissioners, adding he’s not expecting to run for re-election when his current term is up in two years.

Dean said he was interested in seeing how fast the county could expand Race Track Road from two to four lanes along a roughly 8-mile stretch. He estimated the “desperately needed” project would cost about $20 million with half of that to be paid by the Florida Department of Transportation due to an overpass over I-95.

“That is just one example of where I feel like our hands are tied because of lack of revenue we need to move forward with critical transportation,” he said.

Johns said reasons were as important as revenues and that he would prefer a tax serving specific purposes, preferably not in perpetuity. He said the county needed a way to reduce overhead rather than just increase revenues. He also called for a “realistic budget” that takes into account long-term maintenance.

Dean requested, for the time being, a general discussion about what a five-cent-per-gallon gas tax might look like.

Locklear said such a proposal, at least when it was explored in the past, would have brought in annual revenues in the $6-$8 million range, but asked commissioners to wait for updated figures. Wanchick said a memo could be prepared by the end of the week

“What you do after that is up to you,” he told commissioners.

Other business

• Commissioners unanimously approved spending $65,000 to beef up a consulting team working on the county’s offer to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to build a new, permanent St. Augustine Community-Based Outpatient Clinic.

The county already spent $50,000 on the Architectural and Engineering Task Order and will have to draw from General Fund Reserves to bring in a security, technology and communication design specialist as well as a medical planner. County staff said the VA’s requirements for the facility are extensive and they didn’t initially realize complexities of certain components.

The VA currently provides services from temporary facilities at the Old Moultrie Road/Southpark Boulevard intersection. The department in December 2015 announced its intent to enter into a sole-source contract with the county to lease built-to-suit space adjacent to its Health and Human Services Center. A draft offer is expected by March 17.

• County staff got consensus from commissioners to do an economic feasibility study on the possibility of dissolving the Town of Hastings and having the county absorb the municipality.

Town commissioners voted last week to seek the county’s help in figuring out what that scenario might look like. Residents had voiced support for their community but concerns about town government’s financial viability, including infrastructure upkeep.

Wanchick said he anticipates the study will be a 60-day undertaking, requiring only staff time in expense.

• Commissioners unanimously approved adding two priority items to the county’s Legislative Action Plan for 2017. The county wants to pursue support and funding for an additional county judge as well as state and federal support for recovery efforts related to Hurricane Matthew.

• Commissioners unanimously approved an economic incentives package worth $160,537 for MAS HVAC Inc. The company plans to construct a 32,400-square-foot office/industrial building on Deerpark Boulevard and anticipates creating 30 new jobs at an average wage of $61,000.

The agreement includes reimbursement for four years of ad valorem taxes and up to 100 percent of fees collected by the county (impact fees and water/sewer connection fees). There will be an estimated annual payout of $18,944 over a nine-year span starting with fiscal year 2019.


in 2011 the census counted almost half the local employees commuted from out of county. As long as we don't build workforce housing, we'll keep struggling to build enough roads

Tim Pugh
How are you going to fund public service? we cannot even pass a 1/2 cent sales tax

Jack (sponger) Harvell
You're kidding right? Another tax courtesy of development we don't want or need. While we are still thirteen schools behind. Get ready to bend over and grab your ankles. They are coming for us again.

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