June 14, 2019 12:00 p.m.
The 2019/2020 budget preparation effort moves into the next step this week, and Ms. Pauline Testagrose and I confer with City Commissioners regarding the formulation of a preliminary budget. Additionally, a preliminary Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) was presented to the Planning Advisory Board (PAB) to demonstrate the CIP’s support of the City’s Comprehensive Plan. The presentation to the PAB is new this year: the intent is to more formalize the long-term (five-year) capital planning for the City.
A key issue that the City Commission has contemplated for several months is funding for the acquisition of property for conservation purposes. While the City established a Conservation Trust Fund approximately one year ago (Ordinance 2018-13), support, both public and private, has been lacking: no financial contributions have been offered to support conservation land acquisitions. With the absence of external funding, City officials have considered local tax funding.
As part of the 2017 National Citizen Survey (NCS), randomly selected (through postal addresses by the National Research Center which conducted the survey) City residents were asked to what extent would you support or oppose a dedicated millage (tax levy) to fund the purchase of open space or conservation land. Seventy-four percent of the respondents answered “Strongly Support” or “Somewhat Support” (ten percent, “Somewhat Oppose;” fifteen percent, “Strongly Oppose). As can be seen, the amount of the tax levy was not part of the question.
This year’s NCS introduces that concept, with the question now more specifically reading, “The City of Fernandina Beach is considering increasing taxes by one-half mill in order to generate approximately $1,000,000 for land conservation. How much do you support or oppose this proposed dedicated annual tax?” One-half of most anything doesn’t seem like much, so what is an example of “one-half mill”?
To illustrate the impact of a half-mill, I randomly selected five City Commissioners and one City Manager and reviewed their tax bills (2018 values; this is all public record, by the way). Mayor Miller and Commissioner Chapman own, as I would classify, modest homes and each has resided in the City for several years. One-half mill for Mayor Miller’s property would amount to $28; for Commissioner Chapman, $37. Commissioner Lednovich and I each have somewhat larger, newer homes, and purchased those homes relatively recently. Commissioner Lednovich’s contribution would be about $126; mine, $123. Commissioner Ross’ property is a larger historic home, and he would contribute $165. Vice Mayor Kreger lives in a house that does not receive the exemptions associated with an owner-occupied house, so his $137 contribution would be perhaps reflective of those in a similar situation. By the time everyone contributes their half-mill next year, approximately $1.2 million would be generated and restricted for conservation land acquisition.
The City Commission’s decision to add the extra half-mill to the proposed budget will likely be based upon the results of the current survey. The preliminary survey tallies are scheduled to be received in late July- close to the time when the formal budget is presented to the City Commission, but early enough to revise the budget should the survey results indicate a lack of support. If you have received a survey, your choices do matter (complete and return the survey immediately to ensure your responses are counted).
Such an additional levy, based upon the choices of a randomly selected population, should likely be more fully validated. If the extra millage is included, everyone (City resident) will be able to see the fiscal impact in their 2019 tax bill. For the budgets in subsequent years, everyone will get an opportunity to determine how to proceed.
I will recommend to the City Commission that a question be placed on the November, 2020, City ballot (I expect a few people will vote in that election). The specific language for the question still has to be crafted, but, in essence, the question will ask City residents if they support a bond (loan) for conservation land acquisition. The amount of the bond would be based upon the debt service (principal and interest) that the same half-mill could fund. In other words, with annual payments (for eight years in order to coincide with another City Commission election) of $1.2 million, how much could the City receive in a lump sum- probably about $10 million. If the community continued to support such bond efforts, every eight years, another $10 million would be generated for conservation land acquisition.
The key point for next year’s budget, is that, in all likelihood, it will require a unanimous vote of support from the City Commissioners: no margin for error- it must be a 5-0 vote. As mentioned earlier, the discussions with the Commissioners over the course of the next week will prepare the foundation for the next budget.