|Service fees are looming|
|The Press - News|
|Written by Mike Anderson|
|Wednesday, 12 October 2011 13:44|
A plan to increase county revenue next year to avoid another budget crisis calls for residents to pay a designated fee for law enforcement and emergency medical services, in addition to assessments already levied for fire protection and solid waste disposal.
The proposal, which is being touted by county commissioners as an idea whose time has come, would become effective in the 2012-13 budget a year from now.
During a workshop on October 4, commissioners unanimously endorsed the concept of annual per parcel assessments as a means of funding public services in an era when property values are eroding and property tax revenues declining.
“We’re here to come up with solutions to provide the services and not go bankrupt,” said Commissioner Gordon Crews, who will become chairman of the county commission next month. “The bottom line is we’ve got to balance a budget next year and there’s not a big pot of money left.”
The county had to take $2.2 million out of dwindling reserves to fill a gaping deficit in the newly adopted $27.4 million 2011-12 budget. Commissioners believe that safety net won’t always be available.To help ensure future solvency, officials agreed that the financial burden for services should be spread across a broader spectrum of people to include those who currently pay no property taxes because the value of their property is below the state’s $50,000 homestead exemption.
“The key to assessments working is to lighten the load on people paying most of the taxes,” said Commissioner Michael Crews, who initiated the move toward more assessment fees and said he hopes to have the issue settled before his term as board chairman ends in November.
He also said he wants to reduce the county’s property tax rate in exchange for assessments. However, he said, even if a tax reduction is not possible the need for tax increases in future years would be mitigated by the additional revenue from assessments.
The county collects annual assessments of $85.50 for fire protection ($30.50) and solid waste disposal ($55) for residential and commercial properties in the unincorporated areas of the county. However, the cost to run the two departments exceeded revenues by nearly $229,000 last year.
The county already has approved the mechanism for levying an assessment for emergency medical services, which operated at a deficit of $440,921 last year, but never actually implemented it.
“The EMS fee was set at zero, but it is in place,” County Manager C.J. Thompson said during the workshop.
If commissioners approve the proposal to rely even more on assessments, residents could also pay separate fees for emergency medical aid and law enforcement. The services are now financed by the county’s general operating fund, which includes property taxes and some state and federal revenues.
And officials said they want to collect enough from assessments to cover the entire cost of the services, not merely enough to cover any future deficits created by revenue shortages.
“The deficit is so great throughout the budget, it would be a big help to do it that way,” Commissioner Gordon Crews said.
Michael Crews said everyone benefits from law enforcement and fire protection, which is why everyone should “pay their fair share,” including those who currently pay no property taxes.
During a commission meeting on September 19, he speculated that most of the 911 calls for law enforcement and emergency medical services are generated by people who “pay the least and in most cases pay absolutely nothing.”
“Assessments or consumption of services fees,” he said, “is the only way to correct the unfairness of the current system. The long-term goal is to break the trend of the few bearing the majority of the county’s expense and put in place a proportionate fair share plan.”
All agreed that if the additional assessments are implemented, consideration would be given to lighten the burden for the poor, elderly and disabled. That’s where Property Appraiser Tim Sweat’s office comes into play.
“I think we’ve got time to work all that out to get to where you want to go,” Mr. Sweat told commissioners.
In addition to municipal property taxes, Macclenny residents pay county taxes as well, but not assessments for fire protection and solid waste disposal because the city has its own fire and solid waste departments.
However, city residents could begin paying assessments for county emergency medical services and, perhaps, law enforcement if the county and city officials can work out an agreement to lower the county tax rate in exchange for assessments. The city currently pays the Baker County Sheriff‘s Office over $700,000 a year to provide law enforcement services within the municipality.
The county manager will meet with Macclenny city officials to discuss the matter before the county commission’s next workshop, which could be held within the next week or so.
Even if the proposed assessment structure is approved, it probably will only be conceptual for awhile. The county manager said it would take more time and research to calculate how much the specific fees should be.
“This is something that won’t be accomplished in the next month or so,” Mr. Thompson said.
A starting point, he said, would be to calculate how high individual assessment fees would have been required to plug the $2.2 million budget deficit balanced with reserve funds.
Ultimately, officials said, assessment revenue could go a long way toward solving the county’s budgetary woes. But they agreed that part of the overall solution still will be keeping a tight rein on expenditures.
“We’re going to have to still make cuts, but this is a stepping stone in the right direction,” Commissioner Jimmy Anderson said.
The county manager, however, cautioned against making spending cuts just for the sake of cuts.
“If you want to cut expenses, you could lay off half the road graders in the county,” Mr. Thompson told commissioners. “But I don’t feel that’s the right way, and residents don’t want that. I’m not going to tell you you can’t make additional cuts. But at what cost?”
|Last Updated on Thursday, 13 October 2011 13:15|