Belt-Tightening Might Turn out to Be Smart Budgeting for St. Johns County

Article excerpt

Byline: CHRISTINA ABEL

When St. Johns County Commissioner Tom Manuel, who represents Ponte Vedra Beach, took office in December, one of his first moves was to usher in a hiring freeze for the county. Although he didn't have every commissioner's support at the time, over the past five months, the freeze has led to $2 million in savings.

The savings has proven important now that the Legislature is considering a property tax reform bill.

"I knew when Gov. Charlie Crist won that he would be pushing for property tax reform," Manuel said. "I wanted to go ahead and prepare for that."

Doug Timms, the county's director of the Office of Management and Budget, said that this year his office built the Fiscal Year 2008 budget around the premise that the Senate's tax reform bill, which would return tax rates back to the 2006 level, would pass.

If it does, the county would face a $23 million loss in tax revenues. But that's OK, Timms said, because the county already has managed to cut down on this year's budget. He said that, because of the commission's actions, the county has capped salary increases at 3 percent and has reduced county departments' requested number of new employees from 65 to 54.

Timms said the proposed starting budget for 2008 factors in an available $30 million total in case of a shortfall from tax revenues. The initial proposed budget is about $15 million less than last year's $733 million.

"Right now, we can take a $30 million hit," Timms said.

Manuel, who represents the Ponte Vedra Beach area, led the initiative when he took office in December to have each department base their proposed budgets on zero-based budgeting. …