County Commissioner Jay Morris offered a sobering fiscal forecast to Ponte Vedra business and community leaders last week, when he predicted that St. Johns County will run out of reserves by 2021 and possibly as early as 2019.
At a March 1 breakfast organized by the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Development Council held at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, Morris told more than two dozen business leaders that the county will soon face difficult financial times if its leaders don’t take action in the form of new revenue sources, such as an increase in the sales tax.
“The county is not financially viable going forward,” said Morris, noting that while St. Johns County is the 35th fastest growing county in the nation, it was the second lowest in the state of Florida in terms of taxation.
“You get a very good deal here for what you have in St. Johns County for what you pay for it,” Morris continued. “That is going to come to a screeching halt. There really isn’t any more you can cut out of the budget.”
The commissioner then offered attendees a recap of the county’s funding history, noting that today’s budget is $60 million less than it was in 2007, when the recession hit.
“At one point, the county cut $188 million out of the budget – a 26 percent cut,” he said. “I ran a company (in the private sector); we couldn’t have survived a 26 percent cut in revenue.”
In addition, the costs incurred in the clean-up of Hurricane Matthew have further depleted the county’s reserves, he noted.
Morris was critical of his fellow county commissioners who voted in 2015 against putting a measure on the ballot that would have increased the sales tax half a cent. Had the commissioners let the voters make that decision as they did with the increase for the schools, he contended, the county would not be facing the financial problems that will reach a critical point in the next few years.
“A decision is going to have to be made,” said Morris, who noted he will not be running for re-election at the conclusion of his current term of office. “You can’t continue to kick the can down the road.”
Morris’s comments were part of a wide-ranging discussion among business leaders about how to support and grow the Ponte Vedra business community. Victor Raymos, chair of the chamber’s Economic Development Council, said the purpose of the session was to receive input from local business leaders on chamber programs as well as feedback on the overall business climate.
“We want to know what they perceive as roadblocks to developing their businesses,” he said.
Topics discussed included the economic benefits of THE PLAYERS Championship and tourism, which industry officials say helps to keep taxes for residents low. Participants discussed ways in which the county can continue to increase its commercial tax base, which also helps to keep residential property taxes in line. Chamber officials noted the coming addition of the new Durbin National development project and additional Class A office space in Nocatee.
Morris added that in the past seven years, the commercial tax base of St. Johns County has increased from 10 percent to 15 percent.
“Are we headed in the right direction? Yes.” Morris said. “Is it good enough? Absolutely no.”