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Fixing St. Johns County financial crisis

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Updated: 12/02/2013 11:52 pm
ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. -- St. Johns County leaders and residents will face tough budget decisions next year. They'll be forced to decide between maintaining county services and increased taxes and fees.

The quality of life that the county provides, is why Maria Smith and her family just moved the area.

"It's nice to enjoy an environment that's safe and family friendly."

But living in St. Johns County, could soon get more expensive for Smith and other residents.

Commissioner Cyndi Stevenson says she was astounded to learn how much county services are projected to cost over the next 10 years. Many departments have put major expansion and maintenance projects on hold due to the recession, despite a huge increase in the number of new residents each year.

"There were hundreds of millions of dollars that departments heads say they now need to keep up with the demand."

William Smith, Director of Parks and Recreation, says he's been cutting hours and maintenance for years, and dipping into county saving to make up the difference. That money will reach the state mandated minimum in the next two years, so the option to continue using that money is no longer available. Smith told Commissioners last month that he needs $20.3 million to expand, build and maintain parks and recreation facilities at the current service level.

"Declining revenue and meeting the needs of the citizens is a big concern. We have a lot of needs and not a lot of money to meet those needs."

Last year, the county's $601 million budget did not include a milage rate increase. Next year, the projected growth is approximately 2.9% or $3.1 million, with approximately the same projections over the next ten years, but county leaders say that money still won't cover all the projected needs of the following departments over the next decade:

Public Works - $425 million
Sheriff - $180.7 million
Fire Rescue - $45.2 million
Libraries - $47.3 million
Beaches - $23 million
Parks and Recreation - $20.3 million

Now, county commissioners are weighing the cost of cutting those needs versus increasing fees and taxes.

The County Administrator has recommended they consider the following: one percent sales tax for Infrastructure paid for by residents and tourists, one percent sales tax for fire rescue paid for by residents and tourists, utility franchise fee paid for by property owners, stormwater utility fee paid for by property owners, additional $0.06 gas tax paid for by residents and tourists, additional one percent bed tax paid for by tourists, increased or new user fees paid for by residents, off-beach parking paid for by residents and tourists, or animal licensing paid for by residents.

Stevenson says she believes county leaders did the right thing putting projects on hold over the past few years.

"It's was difficult for many people, but now we need to consider all our options."

As of right now, Stevenson supports an increased sales tax, because the impact can be controlled by the consumer, unlike other taxes and fees. In addition, at 6 percent St. Johns County currently has the lowest sales tax in Northeast Florida.

Maria Smith agrees.

"It's a controlled purchase so people can choose where they want to put their money. It's not going to effect everybody. You might have to cut back, at least you have the choice."

Stevenson says whatever the commission recommends, it will ultimately be the residents who decide through their feedback and votes.

"Do they like the quality of life in St. Johns County and are they willing to invest in it? That's the question we'll be asking."

Smith just hopes, the changes won't force her family to move away.

"This is our home and we want to stay here for a while. Our income is on the lower level for this county, so the fees need to be minimal if increased at all.

In the past, the St. Johns County has planned capital improvement projects five years out, but this year they revamped the process to plan 10 years in order to give residents a full preview of what's to come.

Commissioners are reviewing department reports now and will make their recommendations in the spring. If it does include a tax increase, voters will decide in November 2014.

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