Nassau County Commission fails to pass tentative millage increase for FY2018-19

Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
July 24, 1:40 p.m.

Charlie Brown was once again ready to kick the football, but once again Lucy pulled the ball back at the last minute.

The Nassau County Board of County Commissioners was scheduled to approve a tentative millage rate for Fiscal Year 2018-19 at their July 23, 2018 Regular Meeting.  But before a packed house in Commission Chambers in the James Page Governmental Center in Yulee, they whiffed.  They failed to pass a 1.9004 millage rate increase recommended by county staff, which would have required a unanimous vote. Then they failed to pass a 1.5007 millage rate increase, which required only a majority vote.

The 1.9004 millage rate had been previously approved at the June 21, 2018 Budget Meeting and included in the Tentative Budget on July 18, 2018.  No commissioner had indicated that he would not support this rate.  Nor did anyone suggest removing items from the proposed budget.

Commissioner Steve Kelley (District 2) and Commissioner George Spicer (District 4), whose seats are being contested in this fall’s election, voted against both motions.  Kelley is retiring at the end of this term, while Spicer is running for a second term.  Commissioner Danny Leeper (District 1) joined Kelley and Spicer in opposing the 1.5007 millage rate increase.  Leeper, who along with fellow commissioners Pat Edwards (District 3) and Justin Taylor (District 5), seemed to comprehend the depth of the financial hole the county has landed in resulting from years of failure to fund infrastructure needs, appeared unwilling to settle for a millage rate increase that would continue to perpetuate the county’s fiscal problems.

Board Chair Pat Edwards was prepared to support the lowered millage increase provided that certain road projects were dropped from the budget.  But other commissioners did not seem comfortable with making such decisions without due deliberation.

Commissioners will meet again on July 30, 2018 at 6:00 p.m. in an attempt to iron out their differences and adopt a tentative millage rate, which must be set no later than August 4, 2018.

Meanwhile county staff has received no direction from the Board with respect to making cuts to the proposed budget that would enable them to prepare a new budget document.  And it appears that the gas tax, rejected last year, may be back on the table.


County Budget Director Justin Stankiewicz explains proposed millage rates.

During eight budget meetings this year Nassau County Commissioners appeared to understand the county’s financial plight and to support Budget Director Justin Stankiewicz’s recommendation that the only way for the county to catch up with needed improvements in infrastructure and increasing demand for public safety services was to raise ad valorem taxes.  During these meetings no commissioner argued with the facts presented or appeared to contest the conclusion that the county needed to stop looking at budgeting as an annual exercise and view it as a longer range strategic plan to deal with years of underfunding of key county functions and planning for growth, the impact of which has only begun to be felt.

Public opposes such a large rate increase

Four county residents spoke against the proposed increases.  Westside resident Ken Farmer waved 20 pages of the published list of property tax arrears for 2017 as he asked commissioners how people who couldn’t afford to pay current tax bills could be expected to pay even higher bills. Farmer said, “I know we need money to operate, we need public safety.  But consider the people on fixed income who can’t afford to pay taxes now. You should raise taxes half a mill at a time.  People are living off credit cards today.”

County Attorney/Interim County Manager Mike Mullin reminded commissioners that although they were being asked to set a tentative millage rate, there would be two future opportunities to reduce the rate during September public hearings.

Commissioner Justin Taylor recapped recent county history with respect to property assessments and growth.  He said, “The easy thing to do is to say no, we won’t raise taxes.  But the hard decision is to try to support public safety, to improve our infrastructure and make decisions that are going to ultimately improve the quality of life for all our citizens.”  He suggested holding two meetings in August—one on the west side and one on the east side—that would allow staff and commissioners to explain the need for the increase and field questions.

Commissioner Danny Leeper also acknowledged the concerns Farmer raised, but he noted the work of the commissioners and county staff that had gone into fashioning the current recommendation.  He moved adoption of the 1.9004 rate, acknowledging that it could be adjusted downward as budget discussions continue.

Kelley suggests county should live within its means

Commissioner Steve Kelley said that over the 8 years he has served as commissioner, this year’s budget presentation was the most thorough he had received.  He asked Stankiewicz, “Will there ever come a day when the government will ever learn to live within its means?  Will we ever be satisfied with the revenue we collect or will we continue to spend more money than we make?  We can continue to raise taxes every year, but it this Board and staff cannot learn to live within its means in a responsible way, we’re going to have a serious problem here. … I’m going to have a real difficult time going with a 1.9 mill increase.  If there is a possibility that at some time we’ll be able to live within our means, I wish someone would give me that date.  I hope I’ll live long enough to see it.”

Mullin responded, informing Kelley that it is a mischaracterization to say that the county is not living within its means.  “You can balance the budget without an increase,” he said.  “You are living within your means.  But what you can’t control is the growth that has come to Nassau County, whether it is Fire Rescue or the Sheriff’s Department.”  Mullin went on to cite problems growth also causes with respect to activities like animal control.  He also cited unanticipated expenses that arose from Hurricane Irma, which FEMA has yet to reimburse.  “Growth can overwhelm you, as it does with the need for response to public safety calls,” Mullin said.  “What you cut out of that proposed $13M increase in the budget is up to you.”

“Living within your means – you’re doing that now.  But you are not able to serve the numbers coming in your doors,” Mullin said. “I’ve looked at department budgets, and there is not one that has not been affected.  There is a complexity to county government that is difficult to comprehend for those not involved daily.”

Fees may also rise

Chair Pat Edwards (l) and Vice Chair Justin Taylor

Chair Pat Edwards reminded commissioners that the county is looking at fee structure as a means of raising revenue.  However, Edwards said that the current fees are so far below where they should be that they cannot be raised significantly without causing public outcry.  He drew an analogy with a business.  “When your business is growing, do you say you are going to put more money into it or do you just decide to stay with it as it is?” he asked Kelley.  “We can’t say no one else can move into Nassau County, that somebody already here has to die or move out first before we build another house.”

“We know we are deficient in providing recreation facilities and other things because we as County Commissioners didn’t do anything last year.  Nobody fixed it, and we had another hurricane that cost us millions of dollars.  Will we have another hurricane this year?  Our job is to manage these situations and make sure we are prepared.  If we say no [to a millage increase] are we being prepared? Even if it is what some people would like to hear.  We can’t not do this or the state will come in and say you guys don’t need to be here because you are not making the right decisions.

“We can’t just say we’re not going to do it.  Identify the cuts.  Show me where you would eliminate costs.  Show me what we’re going to do when we get sued because we don’t have enough fire trucks or ambulances. … I’ve been calling for a 5-year plan.  But we’re never going to get there unless we can do it as a team.  Forget the politics.  We have to deal with what perpetuates Nassau County at a financially sound and reasonable rate.  We need to do something now before we get the call from Tallahassee.”

Commissioners vote down 1.9004 millage increase

Commissioners voted on Leeper’s motion (Taylor second) to approve the 1.9004 rate, which failed because it was not a unanimous vote.  Although 3 commissioners supported it, Spicer and Kelley voted against it.

Chair Edwards then moved to consideration of “Plan B” which called for a 1.5007 millage increase. Such a rate increase would only require a majority vote for approval.  Edwards targeted elimination of several road and drainage projects as a way to make the required revenue cuts.

Leeper expresses frustration with Spicer and Kelley

Taylor indicated that he did not feel comfortable making budget cuts without more time to consider. He suggested another workshop or meeting to discuss the matter.  Leeper said that while he did not disagree with Taylor, he wondered what would change between now and then.  “We have sat through 8 budget presentations,” Leeper said, “we’ve heard from the county manager, the budget director.  Yet we listen to a long spiel from Commissioner Kelley about why all this is necessary.  We need some intestinal fortitude.  We aren’t going to get anything done tonight.  It blows my mind.  I would have bet money that we would get this done tonight.”

Edwards said, “Every time we get to a point where we are going to fix what’s needed for Nassau County for future years we get blowback [from Kelley and Spicer].  But they don’t have any ideas themselves about how to go about fixing things.  My question is, what budget is going to pass muster in Nassau County?  I don’t see them voting on [the 1.5007 increase].  At best, this is going to be a 3-2 or 4-1 vote. There are not going to be 5 votes for anything that insures the future of Nassau County.  We don’t have to have meetings about roads and bridges if there is no money to spend.  If someone dies because it takes too long to get an ambulance to him, we just don’t address it.  My concern is when do we address it? We can come back tomorrow or Thursday, but I don’t think two of the commissioners will address it.”

Sandra Wilfong (Callahan) addressed the commission.  She said that county residents have been used to living within their means and suggested that the new arrivals need to be paying for added services.  She also said that she had been told that the fairest tax is sales tax, suggesting that commissioners move in that direction to remove the tax burden from property owners.  Budget Director Stankiewicz said that the county does share in sales tax receipts, which are distributed by the state and also has added an optional one-cent local sales tax.

Correcting level of service deficiencies a priority

Stankiewicz went on to say that the increase proposed for this year is so high because it is a one-time “true up,” because the county is so far behind.  Future budgets will not require such drastic measures.  Going to 5-year planning will help the county better live within its budget.  He said that currently there are deficiencies in level of service, and that’s why all the costs can’t be put on new developers.  “You can’t increase impact fees to make up for your deficiencies in levels of service,” Stankiewicz said.  “That’s against the law.  We have to correct our deficiencies first, and I know that is hard on property owners.” “Levels of service” includes things like new fire stations and equipment, new public safety personnel.

Stankiewicz suggested that county staff be held accountable on October 1, 2019, assuming that increases are approved for the coming year that address deficient levels of service.

More public input

Commission Chambers were full with overflow audience in the hall.

Michael Adams (Yulee) spoke about the impact of increased taxes on disabled veterans.  “Do like Donald Trump,” he said.  “Cut the taxes.  You’ll see more businesses coming into the county.  You’ve got it absolutely backwards.  Put your big boy pants on and cut the budget a little bit.”

Bernice Wallace, wife of Commissioner Steve Kelley, was the final public speaker to address the commission. She asked about the reason for certain budget reserve funds.  She suggested that reserves do not need to be built up immediately and that with smaller, regular tax increases property owners will not be as adversely impacted. “I understand that we need the money,” she said, “but we don’t need to do it all at once.  Don’t take our money and put it in reserve for a rainy day. We’ve got to do that for ourselves.”

Chair Edwards and Wallace got into a back and forth discussion over costs of emergencies and how the county would pay for them.  He said that the county has spent over $6M over the last two years because of hurricanes and that the county is entering another hurricane season.  He said that the county cannot use these reserves to balance the budget and still be prepared for hurricanes.

Commissioner Leeper said, “Every year we put everything on the table to formulate the budget.  Last year we proposed increasing the gas tax so that the general fund would not be burdened with costs for road improvements. It takes a 4/5ths vote to approve such a tax.  We even agreed to commit on a 60/40 split to spend most of the revenue on westside roads. Over 10 years, we would have pumped $9M into west side roads.  But we couldn’t get votes from the same two commissioners.”

Spicer and Ken Farmer objected to Leeper’s characterization, claiming that the vote failed because Leeper as chair refused to allow time for Spicer to discuss the matter with westside constituents before taking the vote.  Leeper’s comeback:  plenty of westside residents were at the commission meeting and supported the tax once they understood how much money would be spent on their roads.

Commissioners vote down 1.5007 millage increase

In response to a question from the chair, Stankiewicz said he would prefer a vote to set the millage to be followed by another meeting to determine where the cuts should be made. Commissioner Taylor moved approval of the 1.5007 millage increase.  Chair Edwards stepped down to second the motion.  The motion failed on a 2-3 vote, with only Edwards and Taylor voting in support.

Stankiewicz explained that the County Commission has until August 4 to set a millage rate.  “If we fail to adopt a millage rate by that time,” he said, “then the maximum rate we can charge is the roll back rate, which would be a significant hit.”

A silence fell over the Board and the Chamber.  Mullin reminded commissioners that the highest millage increase they can set with a 3-2 vote is 1.5007.

“All right, Board,” Edwards said.  “We need to figure out what we’re going to do.”

Stankiewicz asked for quick action so that his staff would have time to adjust the budget.  He added that adopting a gas tax by October 1 is also a possibility and would relieve pressure on the county’s transportation fund.

Commissioners agreed to reconvene on Monday, July 30 at 6:00 p.m. in commission chambers in attempt to hammer out their differences and set a millage for the next fiscal year.

Stankiewicz reminded commissioners that without direction, he would have nothing to present. Edwards commented, “Apparently, you aren’t the only one.”

Editor’s Note: Another Special Meeting of the Board of County Commissioners to discuss the FY 18/19 Budget is now scheduled for Monday, July 30, 2018 at 6:00 p.m. in the Nassau County Commission Chambers located in the James S. Page Governmental Complex.

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.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Dave Lott
Dave Lott(@dave-l)
5 years ago

The chickens have come home to roost and there is no escaping the situation. Rather than having modest increases over the last several years, the group of “No” has brought the county to this financial cliff. A lack of leadership is clearly displayed by those commissioners that don’t offer any viable solutions. It will be interesting to see who blinks first.

Bruce C Smyk
Bruce C Smyk (@guest_51949)
5 years ago

Spineless politicians.

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

Disagree with Attorney/Manager, Mr. Mullin. In point of fact, the Commissioners CAN control growth in our county. For reasons I do not understand, they choose not to. Every single building permit issued puts us further behind on every aspect of the county budget. But somehow this fact is the elephant in the room. Perhaps a blend is what is needed to “true up”. Slow the growth rate via limiting permits, do some replenishment via sales tax, some by mileage. Might need to stay the course for more than a year but putting all the burden on just residents in one fell swoop ignores the impact of the huge increases in tourism over the last several years. Respectfully – look at all the options and imagine them working in tandem rather than isolation.

Dave Lott
Dave Lott(@dave-l)
5 years ago
Reply to  Betsie Huben

Controlled growth from the prospect of not going crazy with rezonings that increase density certainly is wise, but not issuing a building permit on a plat that is properly zoned only invites expensive litigation unless there is a need for some sort of moratorium such as a lack of water/sewer system capacity. Every single building permit also means jobs and income for workers and suppliers.
Local option sales tax already in place – but increase in gasoline tax is an option.

John Campbell Elwell
John Campbell Elwell(@elwelljohnyahoo-com)
5 years ago

Absolutely agree with you Dave. A substantial increase in the gas tax is a “no brainer” so the home owners don’t pick up the whole tab, again. Cutting some spending this upcoming year might be in order as well!

GERALD DECKER(@myfernandina)
5 years ago

The tax base for Nassau is increasing each year, I hope that projected growth is factored in their models. No doubt some increase is needed but to burden CURRENT owners with a great leap in ad valorem rate WILL come back to haunt them.

Klynt A. Farmer
Klynt A. Farmer (@guest_51978)
5 years ago

Let’s ask the great Citizens for Better Nassau County why OMB issued raises to staff and every constitutional officer has the same included in this year’s budget if we continue to live on the “fiscal cliff”….. Typical politics for Nassau County. A select few prosper and benefit and everyone else picks up the tab.