Tools for the tool box.
As they passed four resolutions to position themselves to move ahead on levying taxes to address four areas, county commissioners last week said they were just adding a tool to the tool box for the next budget season, leaving the door open for alternative sources of revenue.
There would still be studies required to justify establishing a Municipal Services Benefit Unit (MSBU). Those studies Commissioner Warren Yeager said could run in the tens of thousands of dollars.
There are still requirements for public hearings – county attorney Jeremy Novak suggested the Board of County Commissioners conduct at least two public hearings before adopting any MSBU by ordinance.
But as they had discussed much of the past year, commissioners are in search of alternative revenue streams and by adopting four resolutions on solid waste, stormwater, road improvements and beach nourishment the BOCC is in position to at least consider specific taxes to address those issues in the coming budget year.
“This allows you to consider this this year,” said county administrator Don Butler. “It doesn’t mean you are going to do anything, but it opens the door.”
Yeager said before considering the first resolution that he would not be in favor of any additional taxes unless the BOCC lessened by a corresponding number the burden on property tax payers.
“This does allow us to spread the expense for those services,” Yeager said. “But I am not in favor unless we reduce the ad valorem tax burden.”
One proposal, for beach nourishment, was narrower in focus than the others, Novak said.
Given that revenue generated by any MSBU would be insufficient to fully fund a multi-million dollar project to nourish beaches that are reaching the life expectancy of the previous nourishment project, the issue would likely require a process much like the previous project.
That involved establishing a Municipal Services Taxing Unit (MSTU), by referendum of voters in the impacted areas, to underwrite a bond issuance for the local funding for any nourishment project.
“We may or may not need this, but it does give us one added option,” Yeager said.
The other three resolutions dealt with issues that were more county-wide and could, if commissioners chose, be options they could adopt as a board without going out to the public beyond conducting public hearings and soliciting public comments, Novak said.
The solid waste ordinance was almost a fait accompli for the commissioners.
With the landfill losing hundreds of thousands of dollars each year and nearing its own expiration date, commissioners have discussed mandatory garbage pickup countywide for some time.
The BOCC has proposed a voter referendum on a sales tax for mandatory garbage pickup in November.
The resolution on stormwater brought debate, and comments from resident Bill Koran who wondered about taxing property owners – any tax under a MSBU would be levied by property owner in a uniform amount, Novak said - considering that some stormwater issues, as on St. Joseph Peninsula and St. Joe Beach, are due to faulty private development or construction.
Yeager emphasized that there are stormwater issues in all districts and not all tied to development or construction project.
“This gives us the ability to have the discussion, do the studies, to implement the taxing unit,” Yeager said, adding that the studies demonstrate and justify the extent of any benefit.
Commissioner Joanna Bryan said the county had some ability to address stormwater early.
“Stormwater should be addressed at development,” she said. “I look at a lot of developments in the county and there is no stormwater management.”
There was also debate about road improvements, but along two planes.
Yeager said an MSBU would not be his preferred method of raising money for road paving. He has long championed an increase to the gas tax the county collects.
“That way everybody pays,” Yeager said.
Bryan said she would like to know the background of prior road paving projects, but had been denied that public information by Commissioner Carmen McLemore when she requested it from county staff.
At the time, McLemore said it was a waste of staff time and told Bryan outright she would not get the information.
She said the BOCC needs to understand where road bond money was spent in the past to fully understand the priorities of the present and future.
“We have no plan, no priorities,” Bryan said. “We need to have a plan of action.”
Novak again interjected that while there remained many questions to be addressed on all four resolutions, “You can not continue during the budget process without the resolutions.”
All four resolutions passed, each garnering at least four votes.
“This is nothing written in stone today,” McDaniel said. “It’s just keeping the options on the table.”
A straightforward question turned into another quarrel about the jail.
A request by jail administrator Michael Hammond to negotiate with Liberty County to house female inmates – the Bay County Jail has run out of room for females, he said – was met with a question pertaining to the county’s responsibility/accountability for inmates housed in other jails.
The question came from Bryan and Hammond greeted it with allegations that Bryan was working to ensure the county is sued concerning the jail, that her actions regarding the jail had become “beyond ridiculous” and as such he did not feel comfortable addressing the question.
Bryan asked Butler to step in as county administrator to address Hammond’s “insubordinate” behavior and denied taking any action aimed at getting the county sued.
All the while Hammond and Bryan talked over each other and Commission chair Tan Smiley banged his gavel.
“Mr. Hammond, you are so out of line,” Bryan said. “I am disturbed that he continues to come to meetings and talk this way. That is insubordination.”
Butler said that he understood the BOCC to have previously closed discussion on the jail and the issue of an inspection and, “The less we talk about the jail the better.”
Bryan said it was reasonable to question what the BOCC’s responsibility was and most everything commissioners do is potential for litigation.
“(Mr. Hammond), stop with your insubordination in these county meetings,” Bryan said.