Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
January 18, 2018 8:30 p.m.


Nassau County Board of County Commissioners January 17, 2018: (l-r) County Manager Shanea Jones, County Attorney Mike Mullin, Chairman Pat Edwards, Commissioners Danny Leeper, George Spicer, Steve Kelley

The theme of yesterday’s Nassau County Board of County Commissioners meeting could have been taken from an old Danish Proverb: bad is never good until worse happens. After years of what Commissioner Steve Kelley (District 2) characterized as “kicking the can down the road” on tax and fee increases essential to supporting population growth and basic services, commissioners appeared to have come to the sobering realization that Nassau County needs to find ways of bringing in more revenue.

The discussion arose in the wake of County Fire Chief Brady Rigdon’s monthly status report on Fire/Rescue activities. He reported that last year his department responded to more than 10,000 calls, an increase of a thousand over the previous year. Medical calls continue to outstrip fire calls. Last month roughly 90 percent of calls were for medical help. In order to meet the needs of a growing population, an eighth fire station will soon open.

County Fire Chief Brady Rigdon responds to a question from Commissioner Steve Kelley.

When queried on his priorities for the next budget year, Rigdon said that he would be seeking additional staffing and renewing a request for additional heart monitors. In discussion with County Manager Shanea Jones, it was established that each fire station needs six responders for each of three shifts, resulting in an annual operating cost of $2.5M per station per year. Rigdon said that while engines should be staffed by three personnel when responding to fires, current staff limitations have that number at two.

The number and location of fire stations is dictated by population location and requirements established by the Insurance Service Organization (ISO). This is the organization tasked with determining the rating class for a department, and this in turn is used to determine the insurance premiums charged by insurance companies.

Further discussion identified needs for additional fire/rescue resources in terms of personnel and facilities. Commission Chairman Pat Edwards (District 3) told fellow commissioners that the county needs to look at developing a five-year plan, review impact fees, ad valorem taxes and sales tax. “Somehow we need to bring [a discussion of] funding to the table,” he said. Commissioner Danny Leeper (District 1) agreed, adding that county staff has been asked to do more with less over recent years. While staff devotes time to finding ways to save money and streamline operations, it appears that the county may have hit a wall.

After listening to staff report that the county has only received $52,000 of the $4,913,000 requested from FEMA to deal with Hurricane Matthew damage, Edwards said, “We can’t afford a severe thunderstorm with the money we currently have at hand.” OMB Director/Assistant County Manager Justin Stankiewicz told commissioners that it could take 3-4 years for FEMA reimbursements to come through and that the paperwork for Hurricane Irma damage has not even been filed yet. In response to questions Stankiewicz said that the FEMA funding, which could pay up to 75 percent of approved storm claims, is not closed out until post-funding audits are completed, sometimes 10-12 years after the storm event.

Commissioners expressed concern over the county’s provision of public safety in light of current finances. Commissioner Steve Kelley suggested that perhaps the time has come to institute fire assessment fees. Other commissioners agreed, adding that there needs to be serious discussion over current impact fees, mobility fees and recreation impact fees. Chairman Edwards charged County Manager Shanea Jones to bring documentation on all these matters to the BOCC for their review and consideration “as soon as possible.”

County Attorney Mike Mullin cautioned commissioners that outside consultants will be needed to establish a sound, rational basis for changing impact fees. He said that such study requires county funding and “needs to be considered now.” Commissioner Kelly said, “We have done all we can to hold the line [on tax and fee increases]. But we need to begin considering next year’s budget sooner this year.”

County Manager Shanea Jones reminded commissioners that study of a fire assessment fee could only consider services that benefit a property, not the people who live on it. Therefore, such a fee cannot cover emergency rescue services. Earlier in the meeting, Fire Chief Rigdon had presented statistics showing the growth in calls for medical services over fire service. Although January 2018 is only half over, 332 of the total calls for service his department has received are for medical assistance, with only 85 related to fire assistance.

Commissioner George Spicer

Commissioner George Spicer (District 4), citing problems with potholes in his district (Old Dixie Highway), endorsed the need to consider raising impact fees to assure proper road maintenance. Commissioner Leeper also brought up a road issue in his district.

Chairman Edwards said that the county is growing at a “phenomenal rate,” adding that Nassau County staff “is the best in the business” but they have gone as far as they can with the limitations of current county finances.

Commissioners were clear in expressing their desire to review possible avenues for raising revenue. However, there was no indication that they will support any particular course of action. In past years the BOCC has seemed poised to raise taxes or fees, but stepped back from the brink seemingly in light of public opposition during election cycles. The Fernandina Observer has covered the county’s financial situation over the past few years.  Below are some links to previous articles:

Commissioner Leeper advised commissioners that Phil Scanlan has requested time to present a request for funding assistance for Amelia Island multi-use trails and bike paths. It was the consensus of the BOCC that the county is not in the position to fund such a project at this time.

Commissioner Justin Taylor (District 5) did not attend the meeting.

Thanks to Chief Rigdon for his corrections.

Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.

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Chris Hadden
Chris Hadden
4 years ago

I am puzzled by this. Isn’t the reason given for unrestrained growth always that it will generate more money for taxes? We now have a 13 mile strip of all the largest corporate businesses and piles of new homes. I thought this was all going to “benefit” Nassau county by generating new revenue. Growing our way to lower taxes. What is going wrong?

Dave Lott
Dave Lott
4 years ago

Chris, the main issue is that Amelia Island has always been the cash cow for Nassau County. Tax valuations on AI increased over 10% in the last fiscal year. Certainly a faster rate more than the cost of supporting the properties on the Island. Whereas the remainder of the county has increasing needs of infrastructure such as paved roads, additional fire protection (each station at a cost of $2.5 million/year per Chief Rigdon.

Terry Jones
Terry Jones
4 years ago

not everyone is paying for services & home owners r tired of being the go to source——impact fees for new homes & businesses with a ‘REAL’ cost to ‘developers’ & not all fees just passed on to new home buyers & businesses need to be implemented——it’s time also to go back to a gasoline tax to pay for infrastructure [roads & bridges etc.]at least almost everyone will make a contribution this way plus our visitors—–this will be unpopular but is there a fee on ‘realtors’ transactions who benefit from the sales of all this growth nassau is experiencing ?

Doug Adkins
Doug Adkins
4 years ago

The Citizens for Better Nassau were organizing a meeting in November 2017 to discuss their “political work plan” for 2018. If you were to compare Nassau County to Clay County using the
You would find that Nassau County ranks #12 in taxation in “per capita total property tax levies” and Clay County ranks #47 in the same category. The comparison took offers a real opportunity to contrast and compare counties and look across a wide range of factors to assess the facts. The truth is that Wildlight Developers know that “new money” is needed to address needed infrastructure investments to handle the work load that their new town will impose on the current infrastructure that surrounds the Stewardship District. The cost of making these infrastructure improvements obviously will fall to the taxpayers who live outside the Stewardship District since that is where the improvements are needed. The raising of taxes will result in Nassau County rising on the ladder of high tax counties in Florida and that is double edge sword as retiring “baby boomers” look for cost effective locations to relocate. The tax rates will matter more as business owners, investors, homeowners all look for affordability. The other impact that will soon surface from this rising tax environment will be the strain on workforce housing and ensuring access to workers to help fill open positions. When workers can no longer afford the rents, they move and when the distance to the job is too great they look for new jobs. Be careful with your taxation policy and spend some time deciding how competitive you want to be on the state level by comparison.

Chris Hadden
Chris Hadden
4 years ago

This is what I can’t understand. Why are Nassau County residents being asked to pay anything to fund the for profit development of Wildlight? or for that matter any large shopping plaza? or residential development? Isn’t the point of these developments that they contribute positive cash flow to the county? If not why would we want them? Are we supposed to pay in advance on promises of things to come? Who is backing that promise? Is there a way to insure the good will of the county’s residents is not taken advantage of. We have a lot of shopping malls and housing developments now in place. Are we reaping the benefit of this development through our tax roll? A lot has changed in the yulee area. In the name of progress, growth. I personally don’t see much positive from the decision to allow this growth but now that it has arrived. I think the residents of nassau county are saying please “show me the money” I expect my taxes to be going down with all the new revenue coming in and the pro growth sold to us.

Doug Adkins
Doug Adkins
4 years ago

The Florida Tax Watch comparison tables are a good way to see the truth and taxpayers can measure Nassau County absent the political spin that comes with the special interests and their hand picked politicians. The fact is that you have a private landowner using a publicly funded school as an amenity to help sell homes and attract business and new growth. The irony of the video is that this is part of a marketing campaign that features school district officials, seeking to attract new student growth that the funding formula attached to Wildlight cannot sustain. You see there is a 12% off the top mobility fee that provides a discount to the property owners and allows those property taxes to be clawed back into a mobility fee to help maintain the roads inside this new town. The problem this creates is that part of that 12% discount includes funding for new school construction. Under HB 1075 passed by Representative Cord Byrd however, if the School District cannot keep pace financially with the demand for school seats then the Wildlight folks can build the schools themselves and lease those buildings to the school district. Of course we know that with any governmental lease arrangement the price goes up each year which means taxpayers no longer control the building and must pay increasing costs each year. Never mind the teacher shortage or the workforce housing shortage that we face, those seem to be insignificant or minor problems in how to manage the economy. Hopefully they get this all right, the reality is that the HB 1075 resulted in the largest expansion of government in North Florida ever, it places Wildlight on track for an accelerated pace of growth with the power to float what I am told is up to $100 million in bonds to help fuel growth. In my view this is too big to fail, we had all better hope it is a roaring success and that they are able to provide a net benefit to the community and surrounding neighbors with minimal impacts to the sensitive environmental conditions that surround them.

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