FERNANDINA BEACH WEATHER

Citizens for a Better Nassau – Nassau County continues to struggle with growth

Citizens for a Better Nassau
By Bill Gingrich
September 20, 2021

” . . . our county continues to ask current taxpayers to subsidize growth rather than ask future residents to help pay for the assets they will also benefit from.”

Across the country and certainly here in Florida, we’re seeing explosive housing markets and governments taking action to accommodate growth while working to maintain a high quality of life in their area. Similarly, Nassau County is facing a huge population infusion.

The Nassau County Commission and staff have taken some positive first steps to plan for future growth, including better land-use planning – much of which will internalize future impacts through compact, mixed-use development. They’ve raised impact fees substantially to ensure that growth pays for the effects of future growth. The county has hired experts to get a better handle on how they’ll address an enormous capital deficit built up over decades in the form of unpaved roads and woefully deficient park and recreation facilities, to name a few. Unfortunately, the county commission has also substantially raised our taxes to begin to address some of the capital priorities that should have largely been borne by higher impact fees long ago. Despite that, all of these steps have moved the county in the right direction.

However, planning, studying, and programming are all meaningless unless and until the county identifies funding sources and prepares a plan of action. Concerning long-lived capital projects, we have yet to see any county taxing body seek bond financing for things, such as schools, roads, and parks. Interest rates have remained at historic lows for over a decade, but many economists believe we will soon face rising interest rates. Recent spikes in inflation foreshadow a very different interest rate future.

Decades of financial mismanagement have left us with unpaved, expensive-to-maintain roads, poorly maintained and inadequate infrastructure of all kinds, and a dearth of park and recreation facilities needed by our growing county. The county’s perhaps well-intended but misguided aversion to using any debt to fund capital projects defies understanding. Doing so would ensure taxpayer equity and that future growth helps pay for the parks, recreational facilities, roads, and fire and rescue services new residents will use along with existing residents. In essence, our county continues to ask current taxpayers to subsidize growth rather than ask future residents to help pay for the assets they will also benefit from.

Compounding this is our population growth rate. In July 2020, then Assistant County Manager Taco Pope reported that “Nassau County is growing at an exceptional rate…at a rate higher than the state,” and stated that “Projections are that Nassau County will be the seventh fastest-growing county in the state to 2030.” The county commission cannot stop this growth unless the taxpayers are willing to purchase the property or the development rights of citizens that own the property. It is simply not sustainable to burden current taxpayers alone to pay cash for long-lived capital projects. If we don’t start bond financing these things, we’ll never catch up with our capital deficit.

In addition, Nassau County desperately needs a long-term commitment to economic development to attract sizeable private capital investment to our county. These types of new taxpayers, unlike residential taxpayers, cannot homestead their properties, they consume less in government services, and they broaden and diversify our tax base while also making our local economy more resilient in future economic downturns and employing our citizens closer to their homes. After all, we still have almost 70% of our working population clogging our roads to commute to jobs outside of Nassau County. On a larger scale, the state of Florida is already doing this, and their efforts will undoubtedly lead to increased growth here in Nassau County – growth we are not prepared to manage with the current philosophy.

These are important issues facing our county, and whether they are addressed or not will indicate how our county prospers in the short and long term. Because of this, Citizens for a Better Nassau County will continue to reevaluate the steps the county commission takes and, when necessary, will be constructively critical in the spirit of making our county a better place to live and work. The job of county commissioners isn’t simply to placate voters to get re-elected, but actually to do the job they were elected to do. Make the right tough calls and then defend them.

Bill Gingrich is a retired GE executive and chairman of Citizens for a Better Nassau County.

 

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