Nassau County adopts tentative millage increase of 1.5007 on 4-1 vote

Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
July 31, 12:36 p.m.

The Nassau County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) convened in a Special Meeting July 30, 2018 to set a tentative millage rate for FY 2018-19 and to set a time for the first public hearing on the FY2018-19 Budget.  They did that – and more.  This was the 9thBudget Meeting of the FY2018-19 budget cycle.

(l-r) County Attorney/Interim Manager Mike Mullin, BOCC Chair Pat Edwards, Vice Chair Justin Taylor

Following brief opening statements from County Attorney/Interim County Manager Mike Mullin and County Budget Director Justin Stankiewicz, County Commissioners faced the tasks at hand.  As a result, they set the tentative millage increase for the next fiscal year at 1.5007, rejecting the 1.9004 increase that they appeared to have supported throughout 7 earlier budget meetings.  Only Commissioner George Spicer, who is running for reelection in District 4, voted against the measure.  He offered no explanation for his vote.

But wait … there’s more.

The BOCC agreed to offset some of the ad valorem revenue needed for the county budget by adopting a 5-cent gas tax.  This measure was proposed by Commissioner Steve Kelley (District 2), who is retiring from the BOCC at the end of the year.

The gas tax cannot be adopted without public hearing, which has been scheduled for August 13, 2018 at 6:00 p.m. at the Page Governmental Building in Yulee, FL.

Kelley pledged to his fellow commissioners that he would support the gas tax, which requires a 4/5ths vote to pass.  Commissioner Danny Leeper (District 1) offered an amendment, which will require a 4/5ths vote, as opposed to a simple majority, to cancel the tax, which would remain in effect for 10 years.  His amendment was accepted.

On the promise of a positive vote on the gas tax, the BOCC effectively eliminated that portion of the millage increase (0.2504) that would have been placed in a transportation fund. The gas tax revenues will be added to the county’s general operating fund.

Following the vote, Stankiewicz said that no projects proposed in the FY2018-19 Budget would be adversely impacted.  Rather the $700K cut resulting from adopting the 1.5007 millage increase (as opposed to the 1.9004 originally proposed) would be taken in reserves funding.

The BOCC also approved continuing the 0.1021 millage rate to fund the Beach Renourishment (“Sand Tax”), which will collect approximately $300,000 for this project.

The BOCC set the date and time for the first public hearing on the FY2018-19 Budget:  September 10, 2018 at 6:00 p.m. at the Page Governmental Center in Yulee, FL.

With their vote, the BOCC will transmit their tentative tax increases to the county Property Appraiser, who will send notices to all county property owners.  Those notices incorporate proposed tax rates for Nassau County, municipalities and the School Board and provide information on public budget hearings.

Mullin, Stankiewicz address public concerns

The 9thBudget Meeting was held before an audience heavily populated with staff of the County Fire Rescue Department in addition to members of the public.  There did not appear to be as much public interest in this meeting as there had been in the 8thBudget Meeting held the previous week, during which the BOCC had failed to adopt a millage increase.

County Attorney/Interim Manager Mike Mullin (l) and County Budget Director Justin Stankiewicz address the BOCC.

Mullin began the meeting by stepping to the podium and delivering a brief presentation on the importance of budgeting for sustainability.  He stressed the need for long-range financial planning to anticipate future needs and provide sustainability in funding strategies. Such planning incorporates current economic conditions and the impacts of new or expanded facilities on operating costs.

He stressed that he had carefully reviewed each county department’s budget request to see if he could identify savings, and he could not.  Rather, he believed, department directors have consistently underestimated their needs to try to meet BOCC goals to keep taxes low.  As a result, work backlogs and unmet public service needs have built up.  He suggested that the county is extremely deficient in meeting recreational facility requirements with only 3 overburdened ball fields.

Mullin used the Road and Bridge Department to illustrate how inadequate planning leads to public dissatisfaction over county services.  In 2004, the department staffing level was 84 personnel.  From 2004-2017, the department lost 25 personnel.  They were able to replace 11 in 2017, but their current staffing level – 70 personnel – is not adequate to address the current maintenance needs and the minimum 5- 6 calls per day with citizen complaints about road and bridge maintenance, drainage and mowing.

The county cannot legally refuse to issue building permits, as a way to limit growth, Mullin said. The same applies to imposing a moratorium for no purpose other than limiting growth.  Any move to do so must be based upon “competent, substantial evidence,” the validity of which would ultimately be decided by a judge.  He explained that such a move would cost the county significantly in legal fees and damage awards.

He also addressed suggestions raised by some citizens that Impact Fees be raised.  These are fees paid by developers to cover growth costs associated with new construction.  Mullin explained that setting impact fees is a complicated process, which must meet certain legal tests to avoid challenges.  The county is currently working on this effort, but he reminded the public that impact fees cannot be used to make up existing deficiencies or pay salaries.

Stankiewicz addressed public suggestions to further raise the sales tax as an alternative to property taxes.  He explained that the county has imposed a 1-cent optional sales tax, the maximum amount permitted by law.  Only the legislature can raise sales taxes further.

Stankiewicz presented a chart showing how county taxable values will have just returned to 2007/08 levels in the next fiscal year.  Only in 2016/17 did budgeted ad valorem tax revenues exceed the level of 2008/09, as a result of an additional one-mill tax increase approved by the BOCC.  County population will have risen from 69,569 in 2007/07 to a projected 84,283 in 2018/19.

Stankiewicz reminded the audience that most of the growth the county has experienced is residential, which does not pay for itself.  Commercial growth, which does, at this time lags behind residential growth.

Kelley offers an alternative:  5-cent gas tax

Commissioner Steve Kelley thanked Stankiewicz and Mullin for the thorough and compelling budget discussions that had occurred over nine meetings.  He endorsed the idea of developing a 5-year budget plan.  While he did not question the county’s need for additional revenue to provide much needed services, he looked for a way to alleviate the tax burden for property owners.

Kelley reminded fellow commissioners that during his 8 years on the BOCC he had adamantly opposed imposing a gas tax.  But in light of the county’s current economic plight, he indicated that he was prepared to support such a tax, knowing that about 30 percent of that revenue would come from non-county residents.  Understanding that it would take a 4/5ths vote to adopt such a tax, he pledged his support, if the other commissioners would be willing to adopt the 1.5007, as opposed to the 1.9004 millage increase.  “This is a commitment I make to each and every one of you,” Kelley said.

Commissioner George Spicer (l) listens to Commissioner Steve Kelley explain his change of heart over the gas tax.

Some discussion followed about revisiting the 60/40 split of gas tax revenue, a proposal offered in an unsuccessful attempt to pass a gas tax last year.  This proposal would have guaranteed that 60 percent of the revenue would be spent on road projects on the west side of the county.  Chair Pat Edwards (District 3) and Commissioner Leeper (District 1) voiced their opposition.  Kelley said that he would not hold his vote hostage to such a split. He believed that with the adoption of a 5-year budget plan laying out road projects and their timetables, such a split was no longer necessary.

Leeper requested that an amendment be added to the motion that would require a 4/5ths vote to sunset the tax, thereby paralleling the 4/5ths vote needed to impose the tax. The amendment was accepted by Kelley, the maker of the motion and Justin Taylor (District 5) who seconded the motion. Consideration of the gas tax must be formally done at an advertised public hearing, which will be held on August 13.

Readjusting the tentative budget

On the promise of passing a gas tax at a future meeting, the BOCC moved on to set a tentative millage, which involved some rearranging of numbers of internal funds that are incorporated in the overall millage increase.  As a result, the countywide operating millage rage will be 7.4278 (6.8376 General Fund and .5902 County Transportation).  In the prior year this number was 6.5670 (5.9768 General Fund and .5902 County Transportation).  The Municipal Service Millage will rise to 2.3093 (prior year – 1.6694).

In a subsequent email Stankiewicz elaborated:

“The Municipal Service provides services and generates resources solely from the UNINCOPRORATED AREAS of Nassau County. A parcel located in the unincorporated areas of the County pay the County-wide Millage AND the Municipal Service Millage. A house located in the incorporated area of the City of Fernandina Beach, Town of Hilliard or Town of Callahan does not pay the Municipal Service Millage; but rather pays their respective City or Town whatever their set millage rate is.

“The County’s Municipal Service Fund pays for services such as Planning, Animal Control, Fire Control, Code Enforcement, portion of Law Enforcement in the unincorporated areas. Generally speaking, if a parcel is located in the COFB, Hilliard or Callahan they provide these services not the County.”

Final vote

Commissioners Edwards, Leeper and Taylor joined Kelley in thanking county staff for their work on the budget as well as commending county personnel for the exceptional work they do on a regular basis to meet public service demands under difficult conditions.

(l-r): BOCC Chair Pat Edwards, Commissioners Danny Leeper and George Spicer

Leeper moved and Taylor seconded setting the tentative millage increase at 1.5007.  Only Spicer, who offered no comment or explanation, voted in opposition.

The millage is predicated on the passage of the 5-cent gas tax at a public meeting scheduled for August 13, 2018.  However, now that the BOCC has adopted a tentative millage increase, the millage may be adjusted downward during the September budget hearings, but may not be increased.


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Robert Warner
Robert Warner (@guest_52031)
5 years ago

For once, intelligence, competence and alternatives (some of which may not be palatable to some) have combined in a good budget. Hang in there, Mike Mullen – and County Commissioners.

Betsie Huben
Betsie Huben(@betsie-huben)
5 years ago

Gas tax should be for ALL including diesel – especially as we are overwhelmed with truck traffic for development and other commerce that puts a tremendous strain on our existing roads, bridges, etc., and creates significant need for additional infrastructure as well. Along with this, a significant increase in impact fees is long overdue. We are in this budget mess not just because of the two storms but because of the unchecked and unbridled development that does not pay its fair and proportional share of what is needed to keep up with adequate roads, emergency services, etc. Without question, the thousands of new homes slated for (the “new town” of) Wildlight and other related projects and developments needs to help mitigate the strain that they will continue to create on our existing infrastructure and services. All of the budget increases being considered at this time are designed to “true up” our dire situation. Without an increase in the impact fees we will be right back here in 5 more years singing this same old song again.