Citizens for a Better Nassau
April 13, 2021
From 2018-2020, the Nassau County Board of County Commissioners (NCBOCC) paid handsomely for an independent consultant to 1) evaluate the county’s existing parks and recreation system; 2) conduct a county-wide needs and priorities assessment; 3) develop a long-range vision for parks and recreation; and 4) work with the county to create a fiscally sustainable implementation strategy for capital improvements, operations, and maintenance. The study’s findings show the existing parks system is in need of repair, maintenance and improvement, and the current and anticipated growth of the county showed an increasing need for parks and recreation facilities to meet demand. Sadly, the same deficiencies are prevalent in our county road network. Also, there is a need for additional fire stations to reduce response time and other civic facilities that have been largely neglected for decades.
Toward the end of January 2021, the NCBOCC passed two resolutions. The first resolution mandated the preparation and maintenance of a Parks, Recreation and Open Space Master Plan to guide the development and maintenance of county parks and recreation facilities. The second resolution approved the creation of the Nassau County Conservation Lands Acquisition and Management program to identify, rank, and assess lands for acquisition and management
While these two actions help quantify the magnitude of the problems caused by decades of lack of planning, until the NCBOCC understands and approves a plan to finance priorities for public facilities, these studies, plans, and programs will just be expensive paperweights collecting dust on the shelf rather than avenues to address the growing needs of our rapidly expanding population. All the planning, studying, and programming in the world is meaningless unless and until funding sources are identified and action plans are prepared.
Many will be surprised to learn that our county has, for numerous years, waited until it collected enough cash in impact fees, which were wholly insufficient until recently, or other reserves, before it would address any capital needs. This alleged pay-as-you-go cash method hasn’t served us well because we weren’t paying as we grew. And it has meant that current and past residents pay the full bill and newcomers get a relatively free ride. Had we had a proper plan, we wouldn’t have the current capital deficits. While we commend the county for finally identifying some of the major issues urgently needing attention, until the NCBOCC prioritizes capital projects and identifies a funding source for them, it will remain an exercise in futility.
Long-lived capital projects should be debt-financed opportunistically at what have been historically low-interest rates for more than a decade. The county’s perhaps well-intended, but misguided aversion to the use of any debt to fund capital projects defies understanding. Doing so would ensure equity and that future growth helps pay for the parks, recreational facilities, roads, fire services, etc., new residents will use along with existing residents. Some examples of missed opportunities to leverage debt financing include the new $10-million Sheriff’s Complex and Emergency Operations Center and the fire station set to open in the Heron Isles development in Yulee.
The real work of this endeavor – deciding on which projects have the most significant return on investment, should be pursued first and how to allocate resources to get those projects done – is yet to come and will require authentic leadership from our commissioners, as complex decisions need to be made. With interest rates as low as they are, can anyone think of a better opportunity to leverage debt capital to address our glaring capital deficits?
While many like the idea of the county using tax dollars to acquire conservation lands, all need to open their eyes to the true meaning of this endeavor. It means forever removing this land from the tax rolls and thrusting the maintenance costs for these lands upon the taxpayers. There are much more important and immediate unmet needs that will take years to resolve, especially if you examine the facts about conservation lands within the county.
In fact, Nassau County’s has 13 miles of pristine beaches, ‘Egan’s Creek Greenway, Ft. Clinch State Park, Amelia Island State Park, several other parks and a growing network of trails in the east. The 12,000+-acre Conservation Habitat Network already committed to the county by Raydient in the East Nassau Community Planning Area (Wildlight already has 10 miles of recreational trails) is an enormous conservation win. Once completed, this conservation project – an area almost three quarters the size of Amelia Island – will be the largest wildlife land conservation effort in county history. West of I-95, there’s Four Creeks Wildlife Management Area and State Forest, as well as Thomas Creek Wildlife Management Area. There are also numerous boat ramps all over the county for boating, kayaking and other water recreation. In light of this, we would argue that scarce taxpayer dollars should be used to meet unmet capital needs that would have a much more immediate beneficial impact for taxpayers. Acquiring more conservation land should be a lower priority.
For many years, Citizens for a Better Nassau County has warned about our county’s long-ignored capital deficit. We’ve even watched as the NCBOCC has shelved the topic over and over again due to difficult decisions that had to be made, like which projects come first and how to fund them. As such, we’re encouraged by the recent work that has been done to scope the unmet capital needs and encourage our NCBOCC to continue their commitment to the betterment of our county’s civic facilities by learning about how virtually every other county finances their capital projects to address growing pains. If they fail to do this, taxpayers will also have a leadership deficit that needs to be addressed in the next election cycle, less than 18 months from now.
Bill Gingrich is a retired GE executive and chairman of Citizens for a Better Nassau County.