County administrator addresses SJC’s troubling financial state, urges engagement at Chamber luncheon


*Correction: The originally published article incorrectly referred to Michael Wanchick as an elected official. That reference has been removed accordingly.

According to County Administrator Michael Wanchick, St. Johns County is offering its residents a quality of life that isn’t sustainable financially, and something needs to change to ensure the county can balance its budget moving forward.

“Right now, we are not priced correctly in the market,” said Wanchick on Jan. 11 to members of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce Beaches Division and the Ponte Vedra Beach Division of the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce at a luncheon at Sawgrass Country Club. “The demand for what we are offering is going up, but our ability to collect revenue is going down.”

Wanchick said the financial state of St. Johns County has been stressed for the better part of 10 years. He noted that in 2005/2006, the county was issuing about 4,000 single family residential building permits per year, with ad valorem increases at 20 and 22 percent. Today, Wanchick said, the county is issuing the same number of permits, but with property taxes down, its collections are at 8 percent.

 Wanchick said St. Johns County is one of the few counties in the state with a sales tax of 6 cents, which he said is low compared to others. He also noted the county doesn’t charge a 5-cent gas tax or franchise fees, and its bed tax is only at 4 cents.

Wanchick said the county is adding over 10,000 residents per year, which is 4,000 less than the population of the City of St. Augustine. With this continued growth and lack of revenue, he said he wouldn’t be surprised if conversations start to take place on implementing fees for individual services, like recreation programs and libraries.

Wanchick said the county has been able to “skate” in the past because developers were willing to make major investments prior to the housing crash, citing Nocatee as an example. Now, he said today’s circumstances are making developers more reluctant to do so.

As a result, the county administrator said St. Johns County will have to make a difficult decision soon.

“How do you balance your budget?” he questioned. “Is it better to reduce our quality of life with lowered taxes? Or is there some level of tax or increase acceptable to preserve or enhance our quality of life?”

As this decision becomes more imminent, Wanchick said it’s more important than ever for residents to become involved with their local government. He said lack of community engagement is the most significant challenge for local government, and that needs to change so that elected officials are not left in a position to guess about issues that affect residents’ quality of life.

Wanchick also touched on hurricane recovery and said the county has invested $10 million into Summer Haven over the past 10 years to maintain the area’s beach and roads. The county administrator said that investment is gone and only a few dozen homes remain as a result of the recent hurricanes and storms. His fear is that other parts of the county and coastline will face similar problems if a comprehensive and active coastal management plan is not implemented.

Updates from other officials

In addition to Wanchick, other local officials attended the luncheon to speak about their respective cities.

Atlantic Beach Mayor Ellen Glasser said business is on a “really good trajectory” in her city, noting that over 150 business licenses were issued last year. On another note, she discussed her efforts to reduce the speed limit on Mayport Road from 45 to 35 mph. She wore a button at the luncheon that is in memory of a 12-year-old boy that was recently killed on the road.

Neptune Beach Mayor Elaine Brown discussed a master plan for Jarboe Park that features a trailhead for the East Coast Greenway, connecting it to trails that will ultimately link Atlantic Beach, the greenway, Neptune Beach and Jacksonville Beach. She also said Neptune Beach is thinking about selling city hall and its police department in the central business district and moving to a new location. In addition, Brown said the Kmart will soon be developed, and that landscape programs are currently in the works to make the Beaches Town Center more attractive. She noted that 48 new parking spaces have already been added on the right of way in the town center.

Jacksonville Beach City Manager George Forbes said he believes a bill will be proposed to the city council that will allow medical marijuana facilities in Jacksonville Beach “as long as they’re as a permanent use in major commercial zones.” In minor commercial zones, he said they would be allowed as a “conditional use.” Forbes also noted that three new hotels may be coming to Downtown Jacksonville Beach within the next two to five years. He said two have been approved just north of Casa Marina.

Overall, Forbes said the City of Jacksonville Beach is in “excellent financial condition,” and will be out of debt in two years.