St. Johns County commissioners on Tuesday voted unanimously to adopt a budget for next year that will not draw from reserves to achieve balance, at least from the start.
Commissioners said “yes” to millage rates that are more or less the same as they were in 2017 to go with a $733 million budget without further comment.
Throughout this year’s budgeting process, Commissioner Jay Morris repeatedly expressed his preference not to pass a “top-down” budget, meaning one that board members, rather than administration staff or department heads, dictate. He has 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 almost $5 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 final budget includes nearly $5 million worth of reductions across a number of departments to zero-out the recommended expenditures from reserves.
Jesse Dunn, director of management and budget, said the most significant change in the final budget from the tentative budget adopted Sept. 5 is the inclusion of about $1.6 million accounting for the approval of a Hurricane Matthew-related project for canals in Treasure Beach. The $1.6 million figure includes the anticipated 75 percent federal share for that project.
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 final budget.
General Fund reserves are projected to go up from $38.9 million in 2017 to $46.9 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 $71.9 million.
Dunn said the county is in a “good position,” certainly heading into 2018, but also keeping in mind the possible expansion of the homestead exemption in 2019.
Morris has said reserves are meant to be used when they’re needed and they are needed now in order to maintain levels of service.
Commission Chair Jimmy Johns, who led the charge for a “truly balanced” budget throughout the process, hasn’t ruled out pulling from reserves on an as-needed basis throughout the fiscal year, although Morris and Commissioner Henry Dean have said this will cost more money and staff time than necessary.
During public comment, Hastings resident Kenneth McClain said there was too much money in reserves considering it’s taxpayers’ money and people are still struggling to get back to normal after two hurricanes in less than a year.
“What are we going to use that for?” McClain asked. “What are the reserves for if not the people?”
The final millage rates for next year 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.
The 2018 budget includes well over $100 million in carry forwards from 2017, which is more than usual, mostly due to Hurricane Matthew. 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.
Due to growth in taxable property values, the county is also anticipating $12.4 million more in property tax revenues in 2018.
Although the 2018 fiscal year started Oct. 1, St. Johns County and other counties affected by Hurricane Irma were allowed to deviate from the state’s normal deadlines concerning budgets due to the storm’s timing and impacts.