County administrator: Budget just 'treading water'

St. Johns County Commission must pass budget by Oct. 1

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – The St. Johns County Administrator describes the county's new budget as "treading water." The County Commission unveiled the 2015-2016 budget this Tuesday afternoon but it appears there are no long-term financial solutions for two major issues facing the county, operational expenses for fire-rescue and aging roads in need of repair.

The county said it has seen massive growth in the last year, 9 percent to be exact, and it said it's among the highest in the state, but the revenue coming in is simply not enough to fund those two areas.

The budget, which must be passed by Oct. 1, was one of two big financial topics the County Commission tackled Tuesday.

Earlier in the day, the commissioners agreed to let voters decide whether the sales tax should go up to help pay for the growing school district.

A few hours later, they saw the county budget for the first time.

County Administrator Michael Wanchick said cuts to county services were not as dramatic as expected, but cuts to parks and libraries are still proposed.

Wanchick said the proposed budget is about maintaining the services residents of St. Johns County have right now. There is no money budgeted for improvements, and the proposal doesn't address any of the county's long-term financial issues.

Fire services were facing a $4 million shortfall, but the proposed budget makes up about half of that amount.

The budget for road repairs was about $16 million short. The proposed budget makes up about a third of that.

The proposed budget pulls money that would typically go into the county's general fund and puts it toward fire services and road repairs.

There is also extra money coming from growing tax revenue, as well as new and increased proposed beach parking fees.

The budget proposed no new full-year county jobs be added. The county manager said that's troubling, because it means staffing needs can't be addressed.

The cuts to parks and libraries could be about 5 percent of each department's budget.

Brendan Leadem lives in St. Johns County and said he appreciates all fire and rescue do but parks are important to his daughter which means they're important to him.

"We need firefighters, they're the first ones on the accidents usually and if I got into a car accident, I'd certainly want them responding. But I think they need a healthier balance in that, maybe try and cut back somewhere else," Leadem said. 

The budget does include a property tax rate that is actually slightly lower than last year's rate.

The county asked for a half-cent sales tax question to be put on the ballot to cover the budget issues, With money going towards police and fire, libraries and fixing roads, but that was rejected last month.

Leadem said he thinks it would have made sense.

"I think that would have been a good idea. I don't know why everyone was so skeptical about that. You say raise taxes and everyone freaks out immediately. But if they looked at it, they would find it's not that big of a difference," Leadem said. 

Olga Baranov, who uses the county library frequently agrees.

"I would have paid that extra penny or two out of my pocket so the fire and rescue, and fixing the roads could occur," she said.

In the end the county administrator said all of this is just buying time and that long-term solutions need to be considered, quick. 

The council will meet again in one week to discuss the budget and set the millage rate.