EDITOR’S NOTE: Contributing columnist, Steve Nicklas, expresses his views and insights on various topics in Marketplace column.
___ STEVE’S MARKETPLACE ____
Many cities and counties are suffering from the headaches of sagging tax revenues and tight budgets — but the aspirin of austerity is a hard pill to swallow.
Complicating matters is a lingering hangover from their excessive spending of the past. Here in North Florida, most municipalities are responding realistically; others, not so much.
In Fernandina Beach, oblivious city commissioners are focused on borrowing up to $6 million through lines of credit to pay for frivolous projects. In neighboring Atlantic Beach, city officials have been flirting with the construction of a mega-expensive new police building (with a price tag at somewhere over $4 million).
Meanwhile, Nassau County officials have sworn off capital projects until things get better. They have swallowed hard and digested austerity by paring spending, employees, and non-essential projects.
Recently, Nassau leaders wondered how much deeper they could go with cutbacks. However, they have resolutely refused to raise the property-tax rate — and should be praised for it.
In Fernandina Beach, city commissioners have raised the property-tax rate for the last three years. They have brazenly “rolled up” the rate, so that they are living on the same tax revenues as before (despite lower property values). They do not comprehend that this constitutes a tax increase.
Even with the rolled-up revenues, Fernandina Beach officials have still spent more than they brought in — known as deficit spending. But they hardly acknowledge it.
A new slate of Fernandina Beach officials could provide a new direction. Two former commissioners suffered landslide defeats in recent elections; they have been replaced by two commissioners who are fiscal conservatives.
New city manager Joe Gerrity believes government should be run more like a business. He has plenty to correct from years of excess and runaway spending (for instance, a fleet of city vehicles valued at more than $2 million).
New Jacksonville mayor Alvin Brown has spoken words of fiscal hope. Brown, a Democrat, touts smaller government and a bigger private sector, which is a proven economic model.
Brown has reduced staff positions and branches within the Jacksonville city hierarchy and even appeared before business groups to promote his sound economic policy. Jacksonville will be better for it.
In Atlantic Beach, city officials have accepted their medicine and tabled the idea of grand new police station to replace an older, outdated one. You have to wonder about the timing of a major project like this in a difficult economic period.
The message of austerity, of doing more with less, of restraining public spending and encouraging private-sector growth, is resonating (for the most part) in North Florida. Look at countries in Europe to see what system does not work.
The austerity message rings loud and clear, like a pounding drumbeat. But unlike a headache, this pounding is opportunistic, and good.