October 2014-September 2015
While it sounds like a broken record to continue to lament difficult fiscal times for county government, it is an undeniable fact that the County continues to cope with issues created by property tax reform in 2007 and the subsequent passage of Amendment 1 which has resulted in limiting local governments’ growth and diminished projections in annual revenue forecasts. Diminishing revenue, or at best, revenue that remains constant from one fiscal year to the next, creates a difficult situation for the County in being able to move forward on critical infrastructure projects as well as projects which would improve quality of life. These limited financial resources make it even more imperative that the County broaden its tax base through economic development and the creation of jobs, but efforts to do so have been hampered by the continued economic slowdown affecting the County. Some positive economic indicators are occurring in areas surrounding our County, but the trickle-down effect is slow to impact Putnam County. The overall growth in the countywide tax valuation is negligible, thus exacerbating the County’s ability to cope with growing budgetary pressures
The County, in concert with its economic development partners, is attempting to attract business and create jobs. The Business Park on St. John’s Avenue should be a major attraction to companies and businesses considering relocation. Previously, the County, in partnership with a private developer, constructed a 52,000 square foot industrial shell building in the Park. This building remains available, and it is hoped that this will attract a prospect that has an interest in a facility which can be readily completed to expedite start-up in a new location. Some prospects have demonstrated interest in the building, but none have followed through with a project to date. Successful marketing of this structure may lead to the extension of infrastructure within the Park to make it a more viable attraction. Also, the County has changed its future land use map to designate several properties throughout the County for large scale industrial use in order to provide some diversity in potential locations for businesses which may have an interest in Putnam County. A new Economic Development professional recently joined the economic development team, and the bar has been raised in anticipation of success
In order to make the Business Park a more attractive and viable facility for economic development, the County undertook a project to extend the entry road from its former terminus to County Road 309C. This first phase extension was two lanes, but it will afford industrial prospects an enhanced visual of the Park and give our economic development professionals a talking point in their recruitment efforts. Successful recruitment of a prospect will enable the County to apply for grant funds to assist with additional infrastructure improvements in the form of utility extensions and road widening. This project cost approximately $1.5 million and was completed during the previous fiscal year. Grant funds from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity will be used to undertake stormwater permitting and platting of the Business Park to enhance its marketability.
Improving roads through resurfacing, widening and turning “dirt to pavement” will continue to be a major priority for the County both now and in the future to improve quality of life and bolster efforts in economic development. The evaluation of alternative asphalt mixes has aided in stretching available dollars to maximize the number of miles that can be improved. While the one cent infrastructure surtax, approved in a referendum in September 2002, provides the primary source of revenue for these road projects, the County continues to pursue grant funds from both the State and Federal governments. Additionally, the Board of Commissioners adopted ordinances in May 2009 to increase gasoline taxes resulting in more revenue dedicated to improving transportation infrastructure. Proceeds from these increased gasoline taxes began to be received in January 2010. Several roads were identified for improvement in the form of resurfacing and paving during the past year, and surtax dollars and gasoline tax proceeds continue to be allocated well in excess of $2 million annually for capital outlay road projects. This practice is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.
The existing jail facility is a situation that is being addressed due to inmate capacity being exceeded on a daily basis. A needs assessment was presented in March 2011 by the architect, RQAW, and it indicated that a 224 bed expansion, renovation of existing cells and improved and expanded ancillary services was both desirable and necessary. The County evaluated possible alternative construction options, i.e., pre-cast concrete, prefabricated steel cells, etc. and determined that the most economical construction method would be prefabricated steel. It has been determined that the project scope will consist of two (2) 228 bed pods, a medical/program facility and an expansion of the kitchen storage/freezer area. Estimated cost was $18.5 million, and in August 2012 the Board of Commissioners approved the filing of an application for funding with USDA-Rural Development. Processing of the application took several months, and the County received notification in June 2013 that the loan was approved. The County proceeded with the process for procuring the services of a Construction Manager at Risk, Ajax Building Corporation, to work with the architect to finalize design of the project and to refine costs. When the project is completed, the existing cells will be deactivated and held for future renovation as dormitory space for misdemeanants and low-risk inmates. The final Guaranteed Maximum Price was established in November 2014 and the Notice to Proceed was issued in January 2015 with construction expected to take approximately twelve months.
The need for a centralized wastewater treatment system to augment the central water system in the East Putnam area is essential to abating pollution of the river, eliminating contamination of water supply wells and serving as a means to stimulate economic development. The County negotiated with the Florida Department of Corrections to partner in utilizing part of property under its control as a segue to a Regional County Wastewater System in that area. Leases and agreements for services have been executed, and a consulting engineering firm for the design, permitting and bidding of a wastewater system was approved. The design was reviewed by Florida Department of Environmental Protection and USDA-Rural Development, one of the funding entities. Bids on the proposed first phase of the system were solicited in August 2013, and the bid was awarded in January 2014. Service was initiated to some customers in August 2015.
In October 2006 the County implemented impact fees on new construction to generate revenue to offset the capital costs of providing infrastructure for essential County services that are impacted by growth. Ordinances were prepared to implement impact fees for schools, fire, transportation, EMS and parks and recreation. Collection of the fees began in April 2007. In February 2009 the County imposed a one year moratorium on impact fees as one means to help stimulate the local economy. In February 2010 the Board of Commissioners extended the moratorium for an additional twelve months, and in February 2011 the Board extended the moratorium for twenty-four months and did so again in February 2013 for one year. In February of succeeding years the County has continued a one year moratorium. The County has now expended all impact fees which it had on hand from the collection of said fees.
Notification had been provided to the County during FY 2011 that it had been awarded $1.66 million in grant funds to upgrade the Drayton Island and Ft. Gates ferry landings. These ferries provide access from the mainland to Drayton Island and across the St. Johns River, respectively. The grant dollars, matched with local surtax funds, will be used for improving the landings and an upgrade to the Drayton Island barge. Planning and project development has been underway more intensely during the past year, and work should be initiated in the next fiscal year. These projects have been a long time in the development phase, and several extensions have been granted.
County buildings represent some of local government’s major assets, and the County, through its buildings and grounds personnel, makes a major effort to maintain its facilities in good condition. Built in 1909 and expanded in the 1960’s, the courthouse houses the majority of the Clerk of Court personnel, courtrooms and judicial officials. As it is not likely to be replaced in the near future, recent years have seen the installation of a new mechanical system and a new roof on this venerable building. A window replacement project was initiated in the prior fiscal year, and it resulted in environmental and acoustical efficiencies and improved aesthetics. These major projects extend the useful life of the facility and help to maintain it as a functional work place. An interior renovation to upgrade and modernize courtrooms, public areas and restrooms occurred during the most recent fiscal year.
In October 2014 the County accepted the donation of a 5,000 square foot building and property in Interlachen. The goal is to develop this facility into a Senior Center/Community Center and to open it to the public in the coming fiscal year.
The County partnered with the Fair Authority to undertake a project to retrofit the Judy Rawson Building at the Fairgrounds. This project was provided funding from the State of Florida with contributions from the County and the Fair Authority. The building retrofit was completed in June 2015.
A Master Plan for the central landfill was previously developed by the county’s consulting engineers. It contained a recommendation for the construction of future cells and the continued disposal of solid waste in areas made available through the mining of closed cells. An area of groundwater contamination where the existing, closed, unlined landfill is located needs to be remediated in compliance with FDEP regulations and the mining option is one means to accomplishing this. The County awarded a contract for mining fifteen acres in the area of the landfill that had been used and closed prior to the requirements by EPA that liners be installed during the time a landfill was active to contain contamination. The County owns 1,562 acres in and around the existing landfill so the ability to provide for citizens’ solid waste disposal needs for generations is protected by having ownership of adequate acreage to do so. The Master Plan also identified areas of potential significant costs which the County could incur in the short term to address contamination remediation, methane gas recovery, additional cell construction, leachate collection and treatment and increased current operating costs. Out of concern for the ramifications that these increased costs could have on the solid waste assessment currently being paid by each residential household, and in recognition of the potential positive financial benefits that could be derived that may have a positive impact on the overall budget for the County resulting from an influx of cash and a revenue stream over a fixed period of time, the County proceeded to develop a Request for Proposals (RFP) to sell a small portion of the total acreage at the landfill.
It was hoped that privatization of a section of the landfill would result in cost avoidance of the aforementioned significant capital expenditures and provide fiscal relief to occupants of residential households. Responses to the RFP were received in March 2014. The proposal most favorable to the County would have provided immense financial benefit over the projected life of the part of the landfill covered by the proposal. Controversy developed regarding the sale of the property, and the Board of Commissioners appointed a fifteen member Solid Waste Advisory Task Force to make a recommendation on the matter. The Task Force recommended that the property remain under the ownership of the County, and in July 2014, a majority of the Board of Commissioners voted to reject the proposal. The solid waste assessment for FY14-15 was increased by nearly 60%. Subsequently, the Board appointed a ten member Solid Waste Advisory Board to recommend a future direction for the County on solid waste matters. That final report and recommendation was presented in April 2015. Among other recommendations was the suggestion that the County should actively solicit outside sources of solid waste. To that end, the Board of Commissioners authorized County officials to move forward in July 2015 to make contact with other entities with a desired goal of securing additional waste to generate revenue which would lead to lowering the residential solid waste assessment paid by Putnam County citizens.
Grant funding from the Florida Department of Transportation has been secured for the resurfacing and widening of West River Road. The County will augment those funds with local surtax funds to complete the project. Following design and bidding, this $2.7 million project was awarded in March 2015. This project should be complete during the first half of the next fiscal year.
One of the County’s primary funding sources for infrastructure improvements since January 1, 2003, has been the one cent surtax better known as the Better Place Plan. While that funding source was authorized initially to continue through December 31, 2017, in a referendum which was held in September 2002, the Board of Commissioners determined that the time was right to allow the citizens to decide if they wished to continue authorizing this vital funding source. A referendum on this subject was held in conjunction with a special election already scheduled for April 2015. A majority of those voting in that election opted to continue the Better Place Plan in effect through December 31, 2032. This continued source of dollars for infrastructure will enable the County to improve, maintain and expand the capital assets that are vital to governmental functions and contribute to citizens’ quality of life.
In September 2015 the County welcomed a new County Attorney to its employ. The County is on the threshold of hiring a new Deputy County Administrator/Budget Officer who is expected to assume office in the first quarter of the next fiscal year.
A grant application for CDBG-Housing Rehabilitation funding had been applied for in the spring. The County expects the application to garner sufficient points so that it will be eligible for award. The County hopes to accept the grant offer early next fiscal year so that eligible applicants may receive funding assistance for home improvement. The anticipated amount of the grant is $750,000.
Currently, the County funds fire protection services through a fire tax. This is an ad valorem tax on property subject to the same exemptions as other property taxes. A more equitable way to fund this service which protects all life, health and property may be through a special assessment known as a Municipal Services Benefit Unit. This would allow the cost to be spread to all property owners whose property is protected and would reduce the burden on those currently supporting the entire cost through taxation. The current tax would be eliminated. A study will be conducted in the next fiscal year to develop a methodology that would result in a more equitable sharing of the funding of a service that protects and benefits all property.
Each passing year puts increasing pressure on the County to provide services, maintain quality of life, and protect life and property with limited and diminishing financial resources. These are demands that soon may be unable to be met without further increasing the burden on the taxpaying public or considering service level reductions that may not be acceptable or wise.
In the most recent fiscal years, the County has used an unprecedented amount of cash reserves to balance its budget to maintain service levels. The continued erosion of cash reserves weakens the County’s financial stability. This is a trend that should not continue unabated, but stagnant revenues, especially those resulting from an anemic growth in the tax base, make it virtually impossible to consider any alternative that is not counterproductive to government service levels.
The coming fiscal year will provide challenges for the County as it deals with completion of the jail expansion project and the pending amortization of the debt associated with it, the East Putnam wastewater system construction and the need to build a customer base and future pursuits of outside solid waste. The inevitable annual struggle to balance the budget and maintain service levels without increasing the burden on taxpayers will present its own set of challenges. Roads, drainage, communication towers and the communication system, senior centers, libraries, an animal shelter and recreation facilities are some of the County’s responsibilities that demand additional attention. Progress has been made….but more needs to be done