FERNANDINA BEACH WEATHER

Opinion – Lessons from the 4th on Nassau County “Fire Tax”

Submitted by Paul Booton

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“It is obvious that the “will of the people” would be for someone else to pay their bills, which is what is now being proposed by raising the Ad Valorem instead of the Municipal Service Tax.”

As I read various media reports regarding the Fire Tax this July 4th holiday, I am reminded of our nation’s founders, who displayed the courage to declare independence in the face of great odds against them, both from the British, as well as many local colonists.  This act was not one which was based on the “will of the people.” As a counterpoint, some articles point out that County Commission elected to scrap a proposal for alleviating the county debt, because it was not the “will of the people.” 

One of the major sources of the deficit within the county is the insufficiency of the Municipal Service Fund (MSF) to cover costs of providing municipal type services in unincorporated areas, such as fire and police protection.  The funds for these activities are generated by a Municipal Service Tax (MST), which is levied only on county residents who live outside incorporated areas.  This means they are not obtained from residents of Fernandina Beach, Hilliard, or Callahan.  Today this deficit is being subsidized from the General Fund, which obtains its revenue from Ad Valorem taxes.  This is the source of my concern which stirred me to write this letter.

If the Municipal Service Tax would be levied to raise sufficient revenue to cover appropriate municipal expenses, the County’s debt problem would be significantly alleviated.  Also this would legitimately place the burden on those who receive the services to provide compensation for their availability.  Currently only about 25% of the Sheriff’s law enforcement budget (equivalent to police protection) is covered by the MSF and none of the Rescue Service (ambulance service).  This means that the residents of Fernandina Beach, which has its own well-qualified police, fire, and ambulance services, are subsidizing these services in unincorporated areas through General Fund contributions from Ad Valorem taxes.  While the population of Fernandina Beach only accounts for about 16% of the county population, considering relative home values, its proportion of Ad Valorem revenue would be significantly more.

The municipalities of Callahan and Hilliard are not in the same situation.  In fact they are subsidized by the County, since they have no police or fire or ambulance service of their own, but pay no Municipal Service Tax.

This brings me to the point of my letter.  The Fire Tax, which was voted down by the County Commission, addressed the issues cited above in a fair and reasonable manner.  The proposed tax assessed those who are currently under assessed plus added an assessment to Callahan and Hilliard for the services they currently receive, but do not pay for.  The strategy was correct, but the labeling was wrong.  It should not have been identified as a Fire Tax, but as a legitimate adjustment to the Municipal Service Tax, which is already on the books.

Finally, I address the point of my introductory paragraph.  It is obvious that the “will of the people” would be for someone else to pay their bills, which is what is now being proposed by raising the Ad Valorem instead of the Municipal Service Tax.   The Commission should emulate our forefathers and show the courage to do what is RIGHT, instead of what is easy or politically expedient!

Paul Booten 2
Paul Booton

Editor’s Note: In 2011, Paul Booton performed an in-depth study of county taxation in general and the Municipal Service Tax in particular. Data was obtained from Nassau County records and current working documents. Results were presented to both the Fernandina Beach City Commission and the Nassau County Commission. His findings were endorsed by the Fernandina Beach City Commission, but ignored by the Nassau County Commission. The issue remains unresolved.

Booton received a BS and MS in mathematics from Oklahoma State University, and an MBA from Long Island University.  For 20 years he served in the U.S. Army retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel.  He was an instructor of mathematics at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Georgia Southern University, and Florida State College.  Booton is an Information Systems Consultant with 25 years of experience.  We thank Paul for his efforts on behalf of  our community.

July 9, 2013  5:45 p.m.    

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