Citizens for a Better Nassau
By Bill Gingrich
June 8, 2020
Picture for a moment this scenario: Nassau County is in good financial shape. It took advantage of low-interest rates to bond for large, long-lived capital purchases instead of burdening existing taxpayers using cash. Because of this, the county maintains a large reserve in the bank for natural disasters or economic changes. In addition to this, the county heeded warnings from third-party, independent sources that being too reliant on residential property taxes to fund government services is pushing the county toward a financial meltdown. To combat this, they fully committed to supporting economic development and creating a broad and diverse tax base to serve as a significant source of county income instead of relying on residential property taxes and other sources, like gas and sales taxes. The county also responsibly planned and addressed capital needs and aging infrastructure promptly, putting together a fully funded capital improvement budget for the next five years. Because the county did all of this, they are set up to weather financial impacts of the pandemic and are not finding themselves hard-pressed to find other, new resources to generate county income.
Unfortunately, this rosy picture we’ve painted above is not where Nassau County currently stands. Our county leaders, for the most part, didn’t do any of the things mentioned above. Instead, they ignored the warnings given by third-party, independent sources that their financial decisions would have negative consequences in the long term.
For comparison, let us paint you another picture, one that depicts where Nassau County is currently. The county did not take advantage of low interest rates for large, long-lived capital purchases. Instead, they operated under what they called a “pay-as-you-go” method, except they never accounted for capital purchases adequately and were not keeping pace with the growth they approved. This method resulted in the use of money from the county’s reserves to pay for new infrastructures, like the $10-million Sheriff’s Complex and Emergency Operations Center. These are the same reserves that the county repeatedly raided to cover shortfalls in the operating budget. The county also chose to defer maintenance on already-huge capital project deficits, allowed assets to depreciate fully and left impact fees at an insufficient level – even putting a moratorium on them during the Great Recession.
Now, with the pandemic, the shortsighted decisions our county commission made are being felt even more. The pressure to bridge the gap financially is front and center. It was discussed recently during a Board of County Commissioners’ meeting with ideas to reduce costs, such as deferring capital projects and halting vehicle purchases, a hiring freeze, and switching external services to be handled internally. While it is responsible for the county to acknowledge the pandemic and make any adjustments to change the way it is operating during this time. The worry and concern for the county’s financial future during that meeting was palpable.
On top of all of this is the increase projected increase in population. Florida’s population is expected to increase by six million by 2030, and we can only assume that some of those residents are going to want to make Nassau County their new home. All of these new residents will need services from the county to maintain our quality of life, even if there is an economic downturn.
While long-term financial planning discussions are currently taking place in Nassau County, we’ve heard them before. The county has had consultants in the past develop sound financial plans only to have our commission put the plan on a shelf to collect dust. Our residents deserve a commission that is committed to best practices in long-range land use and financial planning.
We know this is a challenging time, and everyone is tightening their belts – families and local governments alike – but this highlights the importance of planning and acting responsibly, especially when times are good. If years ago, the county had changed its method of operation by broadening and diversifying its tax base, taking advantage of low interest rates to bond for large purchases, and responsibly planning and budgeting for capital projects and maintenance, it would find itself in a much better financial position today.
Bill Gingrich is a retired GE executive and chairman of Citizens for a Better Nassau County.