Even though St. Johns County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to adopt a tentative budget for next year that will not draw from reserves to achieve balance, there seemed to be something less than true consensus for proceeding in that direction.
Commissioner Jay Morris has repeatedly expressed his preference not to pass a “top-down” budget, meaning one board members, rather than administration staff or department heads, dictate. His song didn’t change Tuesday, but he also said he expected things to “stick to the script” at this point in the process.
Morris said what was presented by department heads at the administrator’s hearings on the budget in May was an already “very lean” budget that was cut back further by the administration before unveiling its recommended budget in July.
The recommended budget used about $4.9 million from reserves to stay afloat, but even then, many departmental requests were going unfulfilled (if they were included in that budget at all). The tentative budget, which commissioners will consider for final adoption later this month, included $4.9 million worth of reductions across a number of departments to zero out the recommended expenditures from reserves.
Morris highlighted some larger requests cut from departments like Parks and Recreation and Library Services, which provide the quality-of-life services and programs that are often the first to go under tight budgets, but also from Emergency Management Services, whose $133,000 request for monitor upgrades goes unfulfilled in the tentative budget.
“As far as I know, that saves lives,” Morris said.
See Tuesday’s edition of The Record for an outline of requests that didn’t make the cut.
The bulk of monies for county services and programs over which the commission has the most discretion comes from three major funds, all of which will be seeing an increase to their reserves under the tentative budget.
General Fund reserves are projected to go up from $38.9 million, as of January this year, to $47.1 million in 2018. Similarly, Transportation Trust Fund reserves would go up from $9.9 million to $14.5 million and Fire District Fund reserves from $9.1 million to $10.5 million. Altogether, reserves will be increasing from $57.9 million to $72.1 million.
Morris reiterated the claim he’s made throughout the budgeting process: reserves are meant to be used when they’re needed and they are needed now in order to maintain levels of service.
“That’s all they’re for,” he said.
Commission Chair Jimmy Johns, who has led the charge for a “truly balanced” budget throughout the process, has not ruled out pulling from reserves on an as-needed basis throughout the fiscal year. Morris has said this will cost more money and staff time than necessary.
The tentative millage rates for next year, also approved by commissioners, will remain largely the same as they were in 2017.
On Aug. 15, the board voted to shift .02 mills, or somewhere between $400,000 and $500,000, from the General Fund into the Transportation Trust Fund in an attempt to make up for some lost ground on the county’s roads. (However, as Morris has pointed out, about $1.1 million in spending for transportation was going to come from reserves, but that’s now out of the picture.)
The percentage increase in property taxes from the rolled-back rate, meaning the rate that would have generated the same amount of property tax as in 2017 (minus certain allowances such as new construction) is 4.34 percent. The proposed countywide aggregate millage rate for 2018 is 7.2518.
Jesse Dunn, director of management and budget, said the $732 million budget includes about $107 million in carry forwards from 2017, which is more than usual, mostly due to Hurricane Matthew. He said some of those carry forwards are directly related to storm recovery efforts that are ongoing or just projects that were put off due to the storm and its aftermath.
The county is also anticipating $12.4 million more in property tax revenues in 2018 due to taxable property value growth.
The public hearing to adopt the final millage rates and budget for next year starts at 5:01 p.m. Sept. 19 in the County Auditorium, 500 San Sebastian View. The 2018 fiscal year starts Oct. 1.
Commissioners also voted unanimously to declare a local state of emergency ahead of Hurricane Irma, which is expected to be at least in the vicinity of South Florida by the weekend.
County Administrator Michael Wanchick told commissioners he wanted people and agencies in the best possible position, adding Irma doesn’t have to come as close to St. Johns County as Matthew did to have a major impact.
He said people are already “very uncomfortable” and asking such questions like whether they should evacuate or where they can find sandbags.
Wanchick also said there is a better opportunity to obtain resources ahead of the storm and to recover expenditures after the storm by declaring an emergency sooner rather than later.
Johns said the board needed to set an example in preparedness by giving people and organizations the fullest opportunities possible to respond to and recover from any impacts.
“We had a very real experience last year and learned from it,” he said.
Johns also pointed to the additional challenge many people evacuating from South Florida could be passing through the county for points north, which wasn’t as much of a factor with Matthew.
Commissioner Paul Waldron said it’s already getting burdensome with requests for resources because the concerns are statewide.
The emergency proclamation includes largely the same language used last year for Matthew.
It has a seven-day shelf life, at which point it can be renewed by the full board, or, if unavailable, by the board’s chair, and by the vice chair or county administrator and so on.
County Attorney Patrick McCormack, referencing some efficiency issues with debris cleanup efforts immediately following Matthew last year, provided the board with a separate resolution he said should improve the process overall. He said the resolution essentially clarifies what is and is not covered under the county’s debris cleanup program, and outlines the priorities for removal on public and private property.
The resolution passed unanimously.