Citizens for a Better Nassau
January 10, 2019 9:00 p.m.
A new year provides a great opportunity to reflect on the past and look to the future. We, at Citizens for a Better Nassau County, believe Nassau County is at a crossroads. While we are blessed with abundant advantages, we have great difficulty in effectively addressing the challenges presented by our inevitable population growth.
We should first, however, give credit where credit is due. Nassau County has made some positive strides in recent years as it relates to long-range land use planning and encouraging more balanced growth. Mixed-use communities that internalize many of their impacts, provide jobs for our citizens, and create a broader and more diverse tax base will, in time, decrease the county’s over dependence on residential property taxes to fund local government. The collaborative work being done by the Nassau County Planning Department and landowners in the William Burgess Overlay District is a good example of this, as is the East Nassau Community Planning Area and the Wildlight Development. On the west side, the Western Nassau Urban Land Institute Technical Advisory Panel effort that facilitated a community dialogue and engagement around future community planning is also commendable.
We’ve always held that balanced growth that pays for itself is of paramount importance and an absolute requirement to offset the continued unwinding of county finances. However, ensuring that future growth pays for itself takes more than just smart land use planning. It also requires that the county assess appropriate impact fees – the fees builders pay when they pull a permit for a new structure to cover impacts to roads, law enforcement, fire/rescue, parks and schools – to cover growth’s impact to civic infrastructure-related and services costs, and to do so countywide. The impact fees, in turn, are passed on to the purchaser of the home or commercial building in the price.
On this issue, Nassau County has failed to “right size” its impact fees for a very long time. In addition, as the costs of serving a growing population increase over time, the county has also failed to keep impact fees updated to ensure new growth pays for itself. This one issue significantly contributed to the seriously deficient capital budget that recently resulted in the more than 20 percent increase in our residential property taxes. And in time it will happen again, unless we hold our county commission accountable for regularly updating impact fees assessed on new growth.
To illustrate the magnitude of this issue, we recently compared Nassau County’s impact fees to those of St. Johns County. While St. Johns County is much larger by population, we chose to use it as an analog because both counties today are largely bedroom communities in the Jacksonville Metropolitan Area, have historic districts (Fernandina Beach and St. Augustine) and a vibrant tourism-based economy, have top-rated school districts, and are exhibiting growing pains from population growth as they struggle to broaden and diversify their tax base to pay for those growing pains. However, comparing the impact fees assessed on builders in these two counties draws a sharp contrast. Today, St. Johns County’s impact fees are four times higher than in Nassau County. In 2004, St. Johns County’s impact fees were already two times higher.
Between 2005 and 2018, St. Johns County’s impact fees increased 54 percent while Nassau County increased a mere 16 percent. Nassau County also compounded the problem by failing to collect any impact fees, except school impact fees, for more than five years between 2008 and 2013. What could possibly justify a moratorium on collecting impact fees from builders for more than five years? Clearly that new growth had an impact on the costs to serve our growing population, and that one decision resulted in a loss of more than $5 million to county coffers. How different our situation would be today had the county acted responsibly in this regard. Those additional costs, however, eventually got shifted to county taxpayers, effectively externalizing the impacts of new growth on the rest of us.
Justifying changes to impact fee ordinances requires study and analysis before enactment. On the issue of impact fees assessed on builders and then passed on to new residents, however, Nassau County has failed its taxpayers and has done so for a long time. This is one of the reasons for our repeatedly deficient capital budget structure and why we can’t seem to find matching dollars for road paving projects or to build parks to serve our growing population. It should surprise no one that the City of Fernandina Beach has parks, trails and few unpaved roads as the residential impact fees on new growth in the city for police, fire public facilities and parks and recreation today are already more than threetimes higher than those in the county. And, the city is studying increasing them again.
We understand the county, at long last, has retained a consultant to analyze the adequacy of the impact fee ordinances. However, given the long and sordid history of this issue and the county’s track record of dismissing the advice received from financial experts it retains, taxpayers should watch this issue closely, demand transparency and, in addition to updating the fees, a policy should be enacted to revisit these fees regularly to ensure their adequacy.
Bill Gingrich is a retired GE executive and chairman of Citizens for a Better Nassau County.