COMMISSION ROUNDUP: St. Johns County using reserves to cover beach costs after dip in vehicle access fees

St. Johns County commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved drawing up to $140,000 out of General Fund reserves to subsidize beach services for the remainder of the fiscal year due to revenue losses as a result of Hurricane Matthew.


Jesse Dunn, director of management and budget, said the county missed out on an estimated $55,000 due to an active sand restoration project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Vilano Beach that has temporarily restricted all on-beach vehicular access in the area. He said additional revenues were lost due to poor sand and dune conditions that have limited on-beach vehicular access countywide since the October storm.

“We can do the transfer in portions as the cash flow is necessary through the summer,” he told commissioners.

Commission Chair Jimmy Johns, who pulled the item from the consent agenda for discussion, asked whether any other subsidies related to Matthew would be required for this fiscal year. Dunn said there were none that he was aware of.

Johns said the county knew the area would be closed for some time due to beach renourishment activities and that the subsidy requested Tuesday was not brought up as a potential at the time those activities were approved.

Dunn said there were uncertainties about when and where activities were going to be scheduled and staged and that once the logistics were finalized they realized there would be a revenue shortfall. County Administrator Michael Wanchick said the shortfall was “totally unanticipated” and the county had “no real lead time” on the matter.

Johns said he would prefer any future discussions on restoring the beaches include information about the true costs ahead of time rather than after the fact.

“This is one of the many ripples that we’ve encountered and we’ll be spending years trying to recoup the costs back to our reserves,” he said.

Commissioner Jeb Smith asked whether there were any cost savings from having beaches shut down to vehicular access.

Billy Zeits, assistant director for parks and recreation, said there was a small amount of savings with toll staff, some of whom were moved to other areas or duties, but that beaches have remained open to pedestrian access. He said there was still a need for most if not all general beach services, including retaining sheriff’s deputies and marine rescue personnel.

Burn ban: Through approval of an emergency ordinance, commissioners extended the county’s burn ban, which is now set to expire no later than Aug. 14. Last week, commissioners approved an emergency order to enact a burn ban with a seven-day shelf life. The burn ban restricts all residential outdoor burning of leaves and yard debris, fireworks of any kind, campfires, flares, and outdoor burning devices. Cooking fires within a barbecue or hibachi grill, or other similar devices specifically intended for cooking, are permitted.

Officials said the ordinance includes provisions that would allow for professionals to obtain permits for fireworks displays.

Commissioners also voted to extend the local state of emergency by another seven days. Fire Rescue Chief Carl Shank told commissioners all surrounding counties have burn bans in place and although there are are no major wildfires occurring within the St. Johns County at this time, there is a need for consistent and persistent rainfall that is still not in the forecast.

Hastings dissolution: Wanchick, Smith and county staff will be meeting with leadership of the Town of Hastings on June 5 to discuss the town’s possible dissolution.

After pressure from residents who cited concerns over property values and the town’s financial position, Hastings commissioners voted in December to study what dissolution would mean for the town.

Wanchick told commissioners he’s sent three letters to the town offering assistance as they “work through the issues” and that each one of those letters has resulted in a series of questions from the town. He said the meeting came at the town’s suggestion and the county thought it best to proceed in that manner in order to answer questions to the fullest extent possible.

“There are no guarantees,” Wanchick said. “We’re all in a very uncertain world. We know the effects of property tax reform are coming.”

Homestead exemption: Commissioner Jay Morris said an extension of the homestead exemption, assuming it gets voter approval, will “break” the county. Thanks to the Florida Legislature, voters will decide in November 2018 whether to increase the homestead exemption by $25,000, which could save the average homeowner $200 to $300 a year. Meanwhile, officials say the property tax break could make a more than $9 million dent in the county’s revenue.

“This homestead increase, in my opinion, is going to pass without a problem and, as I say, it could very easily break the county and I think we need to take a look at it sooner than later,” Morris said.

Johns requested an overview of the potential impact of the property tax break, adding he would rather take a proactive approach to dealing with the situation rather than just hoping it doesn’t pass. He suggested the possibility of “incrementally” tweaking the budget next year and the following year rather than taking “one big hit” in 2020. If successful at the polls, the exemption expansion would go into effect starting Jan. 1, 2019, and would be felt in the fiscal year budget beginning Oct. 1, 2019.

Medical marijuana: Commissioner Henry Dean, pointing out that the Legislature failed to enact anything regarding medical marijuana during this year’s regular session, asked for an update on the county’s preparations for Amendment 2.

Paolo Soria, assistant county attorney, said the county’s temporary moratorium on all permits and occupational licenses related to medical marijuana treatment centers remains in effect while zoning regulations and other regulations are drafted.

Amendment 2, approved by 71 percent of Florida voters last November and enacted Jan. 3, allows higher-strength marijuana to be used for a wider list of medical ailments than what was previously allowed by state law. The Department of Health must promulgate rules by July 1 and begin issuing identification cards by Oct. 3.

In lieu of any action taken by the Legislature, Soria the county can proceed with its own zoning ordinance as well as its own licensing and permitting schemes so long as they don’t conflict with DOH’s rules. He said the goal is to have those items ready for the board’s review within a time frame where the county will be ready to enforce the rules come October.

Soria said even if the Legislature is called back for a special session over the state budget, he felt the House and Senate bills on medical marijuana were too far apart to be resolved without a long reconciliation process.