A special County Commission meeting to set tentative millage rates and address a shortfall in the Beach Services budget descended into a contentious discussion among board members over last year’s 3-2 decision not to put a sales tax increase on the ballot for voter consideration.
During the July 26 meeting, commissioners voted 4 to 1 to begin charging non-residents a $5 per day fee for off-beach parking at county-owned lots, with discounts for seniors and veterans. Currently, the county only charges for on-beach parking, and those fees would remain unchanged. The commission also voted 3 to 2 to set the tentative millage rates, approving Commission Chair Jeb Smith’s request to shift some money from the general fund to transportation, thereby requiring a millage adjustment. The approved tentative rates were 5.12 for the general fund and 0.73 for transportation.
The discussion on adjusting the millage rates originally proposed by the Office of Management and Budget became heated, however, after Smith read a prepared statement in which he charged that – unlike the successful surtax ballot measure passed by voters to benefit the county schools – the proposed county sales tax would have failed because citizens have less respect for the current Board of County Commissioners than they do for the school board, which oversees the top-ranked St. Johns County School District.
“The voters of St. Johns County do not trust this board,” said Smith, citing the longevity of many school board members compared with the relatively short tenure of all five county commissioners. “This board is not respected and is perceived to be more politically driven than community focused…I’m tired of being berated and derided that the sales tax was not put on the ballot.”
Smith’s remarks drew a strong response from Commissioner Jay Morris.
“I disagree with everything you just said in that sermon…” Morris said. “If I thought this county had no trust in this board, I would resign tomorrow, you should resign and the other three county commissioners should resign…I think it’s a degradation to say that.”
Commissioner Rachael Bennett agreed. “I find your sermon extremely offensive, for you to speak for the people of this county and say they have no trust in this administrator or this board,” she said, adding that OMB was “extremely competent” and their recommendations should carry weight with the commission. “For us to come in at this point and say, ‘Oh, by the way, we don’t trust what you’ve done,’ that is self-serving. We had an opportunity (with the proposed sales tax), we turned our back on it and now is not the time to be pretending that we care.”
As commission members divided between those in favor of approving the millage rates approved by OMB and those who felt it was the commission’s duty to adjust the figures as they believed was necessary, Morris said the board was “missing the big picture.”
“To me, what this board does in a lot of cases is play small ball,” Morris said. “We’ve got a major problem. Our reserves run out in 2021, so we’ve got to do something today.”
The meeting initially began with a presentation on the growing shortfall in the Beach Services budget. OMB Assistant Director Jesse Dunn noted that for the past several years the general fund has been subsidizing the growing Beach Services budget. To address the current $866,000 shortfall, he said, OMB commissioned a study to determine how much revenue would be generated by charging a fee for off-beach parking at county lots.
“The county possesses a world-class beach system,” said consultant Greg Butler of Public Financial Management, which conducted the study. “However, the operational expenses associated with the safety and maintenance of the county’s beaches outpace associated revenues.”
Under the original proposal presented for the board’s consideration, both residents and non-residents would pay $5 a day for off-beach parking; residents would also be able to purchase a $50 annual pass. Doing so, Butler said, would net the county approximately $1.6 million, thereby covering the shortfall and generating additional revenue.
Several county residents in attendance spoke out in opposition to that proposal.
“I don’t want to pay a fee to go park off-site as a St. Johns County resident,” a St. Augustine resident said. “I go frequently with my wife to Vilano to see the sunset and I don’t want to have to pay to do that.”
Several commission members agreed, including Commissioner Bill McClure and Morris.
“I’m against nitpicking the residents of St. Johns County to charge them to go see their beaches, which is the reason you came here in the first place,” Morris said. “I would not be in favor of anything that is going to charge the residents of St. Johns County in this area.”
City of St. Augustine Beach Commissioner Andrea Samuels also opposed the proposal, noting that the consultants who conducted the parking study never contacted St. Augustine Beach leaders to discuss what impact the fees would have on the beach community.
“I’m going to be advocating for my residents – and this will drive people to be parking on their streets,” Samuels said. “Without our beaches and our pristine natural resources, your tills would be empty. I think you need to consider what you’re doing and work with us.”
County Commissioner James Johns noted, however, that the deficit in the Beach Services budget has grown significantly in recent years.
“These parking lots are not free – we have to maintain them,” he said, highlighting just one of the costs included in the Beach Services budget. “The discussion is how do we pay for the cost of what we already own and already provide as a service and where does the public want the money to come from?”
Commission members also heard a detailed presentation on possibly using a portion of the Tourist Development Tax to fund the Beach Services shortfall. Numerous local officials spoke against that measure, however, saying that maintaining a consistent marketing budget was crucial to fueling the county’s tourism industry.
Ultimately, the board voted 4 to 1 to approve Bennett’s motion to implement the off-beach parking fee for non-residents only, with discounts for seniors and veterans. County Administrator Michael Wanchick noted that Bennett’s changes would reduce the amount of revenue generated from the initial $1.6 million projections, and said the new fees could be implemented in 2017.