On local taxes – An opinion

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Fernandina Beach City Commissioner Chip Ross

Submitted by Chip Ross
Fernandina Beach City Commissioner
October 13, 2019

Tax increases are generally met with scorn, skepticism and outrage.  And particularly this year when the County AND City governments both raised taxes, it provides a challenge for City residents to pay, and City officials to justify.

Why did both governments raise taxes?  To answer that question, it is important to know that the City and Nassau County raised taxes for very different reasons.  As reported by the local press, County Attorney/County Manager Michael Mullin recently noted that “budget increases, taking out for public safety, are minimal,” underscoring that all increases are a result of growth. Mullin went on to state that “for every dollar in a household tax, it costs $1.75 for services for that house.” He also said that those averages are for every county . . . not just Nassau.  Nassau County is raising its taxes to pay for its growth.  It will also continue to pay for the additional $.75 it loses on every tax dollar every year from housing in the future, On the other hand, the City is paying to conserve land to prevent growth and the future tax increases associated with servicing new housing.

The ONE TIME .5 mil increase from the City will raise $1.2 million dollars for land conservation. It will only fund the purchase of vacant environmentally sensitive lands [estuarine shoreline areas, wetlands, wetland transitional areas, 100-year floodplains, upland wildlife habitats].  Our pace of development continues to accelerate, and the island has reached a tipping point.  Soon every vacant parcel will be built upon, losing forever what is left of the tree canopy and natural environment. 

I view the $1.2M that will be raised via the half-mill this year as an urgent intervention and a test case.  If City officials can’t manage a $1.2M conservation fund, there is no point in attempting a conservation bond referendum scheduled for the 2020 election. Due to the independent status of the North Florida Land Trust, the process of purchasing land for the City will remain above board and transparent.  Additionally, the North Florida Land Trust is campaigning to raise matching funds to purchase and preserve our environmentally sensitive lands. Our tax dollars will go further with their assistance.

Why is this campaign important?  Rather than spend our tax dollars on the cost of growth, conservation land may actually save our local government money despite taking properties off the tax rolls.  Growth-related increases in staffing for development, additional police, fire, recreation, and other services often decreases over the long term with the purchase and creation of perpetual green spaces.  Multiple studies have shown that crime rates go down, homeowner and flood insurance premiums decrease, storm water management costs drop.  Road maintenance and utility facility costs stabilize, and their life spans may actually increase due to lower levels of usage. Conservation lands hinder tax-costly residential growth and assist with curbing the need for future tax increases associated with growth of services.  To further the point, do you know of any densely populated city with low taxes?  Look around.

Green spaces preserved in perpetuity not only have a tremendous positive impact on the stability and quality of life on the island, but they also preserve the natural character of the island, provide habitat for fish and wildlife, protect water quality, erosion prevention, mitigate flooding.  A healthier environment of cleaner air also occurs from less traffic and more vegetation.  

In addition to the Conservation millage increase, the City Commissioners also unanimously voted to maintain the same tax rate as last year by not applying the “roll back rate”. If the “roll back rate” had been adopted, the City would have received the same amount of tax revenue as last year. Since the City has greater than $30 million of deferred capital projects that are necessary to maintain, repair and renovate many of our aging buildings and parks, the tax roll back could not be justified. As an example, many beach walk overs are failing, and they are at the end of their expected useful life. To repair, replace, and add beach walkovers to all beach accesses will cost in excess of $5 million. Maintaining the current tax rate BEGINS to reverse the many years of failing infrastructure plaguing the City today. 

Finally, my own City tax bill for a small, renovated house in the Historic District was roughly $1,900 per year, or $5.30 per day to live in the City.  Half of that amount goes to police, fire and rescue – which I believe are superb. For the other $2.65 per day the City provides good roads, amazing recreational facilities and opportunities, beach accesses and parks, also beach parking and Ocean Rescue to mention a few of the services.  All require continual maintenance.  At $5.30 per day – and that is about twice the median tax bill – I find that to be a good deal.

The reason I ran for City Commission was to maintain and improve the quality of life on the island. All these things that I get for that $5.35 per day are the reason I live here.  They’re expensive, and I don’t know how to get around that.  If we could do them for less money, we would welcome your suggestions. The staff works hard, but how much more can you cut their support before they are no longer effective?

If you have further questions or concerns, I can be contacted at [email protected]. 

chip ross 

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4 Responses to On local taxes – An opinion

  1. Joe Blanchard says:

    If you live in the City you receive a good product for your money. The problem is that you are also paying the County for much of those same products (read services) and there is the rub when both raise their rates. Then don’t forget the Board of Education, they also raise their rates and unlike when we were kids, growing up in Florida, our kids can’t play on the school grounds after school. There is just so much the tax payer is able to fund.

  2. Larry Myers says:

    Taxes: Can’t Live With ‘Em, Can’t Live Without ‘Em…

  3. Frank Quigley says:

    Our city and county need to be realistic about the coming strain on resources – services, primarily – due to the current and projected growth in NE Florida. There simply must be benchmarks* for per capita need for firefighters, EMT, sanitation department staff, roads & bridges staff, zoning, teachers – all those things that support quality of living. That’s “ground up” budgeting and if such an analysis were conducted it would likely be an eye opener for tax payers in the city and county.

    I believe it is folly for either the city or county to see each other as some sort of competition. People on Amelia Island often consider the Amelia River as a moat and would like to pull up the drawbridge and this is truly short-sighted. If there become critical resource shortages in Nassau County (to stop crime, put out fires, respond to car accidents, repair storm damage, etc.) there will certainly be direct and indirect negative impacts on both Fernandina Beach and Amelia island. Among other things, the county serves the unincorporated portions of Amelia Island.

    We need a focus on combining services – if not consolidating governments wholly – because growth is coming whether we like it or not. Transportation, roads & bridges, public safety (fire & ambulance plus police & law enforcement), education. (Already done), parks & recreation including beaches and beach access, water levels/flood zone protection, long range planning are all common issues. Do we really need (and can we afford) dual bureaucracies especially at the management/staff level?

    Mr. Ross has frequently defended FB city government and should be commended for that. He is also correct that services and amenities provided by the city are very good. However, assertions that such things as zoning control, levels of services, amenities and the like for some reason automatically disappear if the city is de-chartered are quite debatable. I believe that the specter of insufficient street-level resources across the region exacerbated by expanded funding of two growing government bureaucracies is concerning, especially at this point in time. At the very least our governments should combine critical services into pan-governmental authorities in order to maximize efficiency. It’s a straightforward return-on-investment issue for taxpayers.

    *National Association of Counties, League of Cities, etc.?

  4. Thomas Washburn says:

    Land conservation on our precious Island is so important. Once again, the City and County Commissions need to collaborate on this issue.

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