Jason Bashaw, Commissioner District 1, Chairman of the Board

As we near the end of the third quarter Suwannee County’s fiscal year we begin to prepare for next year’s budget. In the business world a person with an investment in a particular business and/or corporation looks for a net positive cash flow coming in to improve the company’s position or overall fiscal health. You are investors in our local government and therefore have a stake in Suwannee County’s overall financial wellbeing. You expect good financial management so that your investment here increases in value whether that be your home, business, job, safety, environment, etc.

The County Commission is ultimately responsible for that. This is one of the primary policy matters that a County Commissioner must get a good grasp of because we control all of the purse strings for each branch of government locally.

There are many aspects that can help us determine whether or not a community of people are being effectively represented or led. One of those barometers is fiscal responsibility. To measure this each year we are required to have a financial audit performed on all departments that fall under the oversight of the Board of County Commissioners. As the chairman of that governing body I look forward to the presentation of that document to see how we as a board measured up managing your tax dollars. I am pleased to present you with some highlights from that audit.

Property taxes make up $12,617,873 (28 percent) of total taxes collected 50% of which is being allocated for public security which makes up the Sheriff Department’s budget or $6,308,937. The other 50 percent of those funds are used for operational expenses associated with running your county government. With that being said even though the assessment of property values went down last year the overall value of improvements to property went up effectively keeping property tax revenue the same with only a slight decrease in that revenue (-$15,232).

What does this mean? It means that people are investing in our county, making improvements to their personal or business property or choosing to locate here.

2014 Property Appraiser’s Tax Assessment $1,433,197,347.00

Tax Revenue Generated $12,633,106.00

2015 Property Appraiser’s Tax Assessment $1,417,556,465.00

Tax Revenue Generated $12,617,873.00

Sales tax revenue has also increased indicating that business revenues are up and people are spending money here in Suwannee County. Sales tax revenue make-up 14 percent of the total revenue that comes into the county coffers. The increase over 2014 was $825,229. These revenues help offset the burden on property owners and represent a choice by residents and visitors alike to spend money here rather than other cities or counties. This is another good indicator of positive economic growth in our county.

Federal and State grants have helped improve our community through improved roads, public safety, recreation, housing, health, and economic growth. The total amount received from those sources equals $7,398,312 last year. State grants were the lion’s share of that equaling $5,141,777. Federal grants amounted to $2,258,535. We are thankful to those agencies for the investment they have made and the staff here locally who make these grants happen.

Property owners experienced either a net neutral effect or only a slight increase last year unless improvements to their property were made effectively increasing their tax bill. Total revenue increase from 2014 to 2015 was $1,751,787 with little impact to the vast majority of county taxpayers and the millage rate remained constant at 9 mils.

Controlling the expense side is always a balancing act for businesses and the same is true for your local government. Governmental activities can change on a daily basis and literally with the weather. Production by your local government is up as indicated by a 4 percent net increase in the amount of service fees received. Expenses are down which represents better efficiency. The following paragraph will give you an overview of two broad categories of which the Board of County Commissioners have oversight.

Governmental expenses are broken down into two categories business-type (office/management) and governmental-type (tax payer service) activities. Expenses to perform both of these necessary tasks have decreased significantly. Business-type activity expenses decreased $670,907 (-1.7%) over 2014 and governmental-type expenses decreased $2,519,997 (-7.5%) over that same year. The reason indicated by the auditor was as follows, “This decrease in expense…was primarily due to budgetary fiscal management.” I would add that an increase in efficiencies in government as well as better oversight contributed to these improvements.

Capital Assets owned by the citizens after depreciation is $59,048,858. These assets are comprised of land, buildings, infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.), equipment, and construction projects in progress. Our debts or monies owed is made up of monies borrowed to pay off a lawsuit and funds to build a new State Attorney’s office. That amount is $6,079,110. Financially speaking our assets far out-weigh our liabilities. This means your local government is very financially stable.

There are some hidden liabilities that do not manifest themselves with a schedule for repayment. For example the Florida Retirement System has a projected $12.9 billion deficit that is growing and that must be filled by Florida taxpayers. This is a problem that unfortunately the State has passed on to County taxpayers statewide, and will continue to shoulder the brunt of into the future. Our portion of that hole is $12,900,412 as Suwannee Countians or nearly 1 percent. So we can expect increases in our contributions to that over the next several years.

Another area where we see cost increases is in the area of healthcare. This year will be no different. Our cost to offer coverage to board departments only is approximately $1.2 million, and that does not account for constitutional office employees. Initial estimates tell us to anticipate an increase of 15-17 percent. We offer individual healthcare coverage to our employees at no cost which is unheard of at this time in history. Most employers require a contribution toward individual healthcare premiums. We have avoided that through negotiation, adapting the plans offered and adapting absence polices to both keep the cost to tax payers low and still provide coverage to the employees in our workforce. Why is this important? Twenty-four percent of our workforce that qualify for health insurance is paid below the national poverty level. Any contribution by employees to that would further drive away employees that have a great deal of institutional knowledge only weakening local government as well as the level of service to taxpayers. This causes hidden increases in expense that cost tax payers more.

The Catalyst site has been a bone of contention for a long time. Upon entering an agreement with Klausner Lumber 1 some five years ago, we anticipated spending approximately $6 million. We have spent more than that but with reimbursements from grants applied for and received we are now just below that mark at $5.9 million in local taxpayer funds.

Cash-reserves have also been a topic of conversation for several years related to the catalyst site among other things. When the County had reserves of around $10 million some years ago, we were able to amass those reserves through high taxation and a real estate boom or bubble. Currently, through a recession no less, the Board has been able to build those reserves back up to $6.785 million. This next budget cycle we are currently on track to add to that amount. Within two years, I project we are on a course to be in excess of $10 million!

Our County Administrative staff deserves some praise for their efforts. They have done a lot with a little and learned a tremendous amount along the way. Their efforts in poring over and preparing these grant applications does not go unnoticed. I want to publicly thank them for working with the various State and Federal agencies in a manner that accurately represents the humble and thankful nature of our community. They have simply asked and received monies that would have otherwise gone to other communities. Those department heads are James Sommers, public safety director, Greg Scott, parks and recreation director, Randy Harris, administration and public works director, Jennifer Payne, 911 addressing, Debbie Vickers, solid waste director, Betty Lawrence, director of libraries and Katherine Allen, IFAS extension director. If you see them out-and-about thank them for their efforts in bringing much needed resources to your community.

Grants are not just applied for and accepted. There is tedious work that must be done in the years after the grant money is received, called post grant work. The granting agencies want to know how the funds were spent and what kind of impact they had which can affect future requests by your community. That makes this type of work important because currently we still need these funds to supplement local tax dollars. If this post grant work is not done then the granting agency can demand repayment of these funds thereby burdening the taxpayers with that liability.

Although I am not running for re-election my commitment to this community and its wellbeing is strong. As we move forward into the future I will still be around helping you, the tax payer, interpret what is going on. You will continue to see my writing in this publication and others. Thank you for all you do as citizens to support our prospering community.

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