Growth Could Affect Rural Funds; by 2010 or 2011, the County Is Expected to Surpass 75,000 in Population

By Turner, Kevin | The Florida Times Union, May 9, 2007 | Go to article overview

Growth Could Affect Rural Funds; by 2010 or 2011, the County Is Expected to Surpass 75,000 in Population


Turner, Kevin, The Florida Times Union


Byline: KEVIN TURNER

Florida always has considered Nassau County a rural county under definitions set in state law. But with a current estimated population of 68,000 and a growth rate of about 1,700 new people a year, Nassau is expected to grow past 75,000 by 2010 or 2011, making it an urban county.

That shift from rural to urban could have major repercussions for Nassau, which historically has benefited from state funding programs designed to help developing counties meet increasing needs as their populations grow.

Those funds include money for roads, schools and economic development, as well as grants and loans with forgiving repayment terms.

"With some grants, it could be gigantic," said Growth Management Director Walter Fufidio. He said the Florida Communities Trust, for example, typically requires counties to match funding dollars.

"But as a rural county, you can make an application with no match," he said. "After you hit 75,000, you're no longer a rural county and you have to make a match. And by 2011, we expect we'll be there."

RURAL VERSUS URBAN

Department of Community Affairs spokesman John Peck said the difference between being an urban or rural county can mean a lot in state funding.

"This is the state law distinction made between rural and urban counties - whether they have 75,000 people or less," Peck said April 23.

Clearly there are things that change if a county passes 75,000 in population. The list is spread out all over the Florida statutes. There's not a single answer."

For his department's part, Peck said DCA is required to provide a higher level of technical assistance to rural counties.

SCHOOL IMPACTS MINIMAL

A few programs dedicated specifically to rural counties include the Small School District Stabilization Program, the Rural Economic Development Initiative, Rural Economic Development Strategic Grants and the Rural Community Development Revolving Loan Program, Peck said.

Nassau School Superintendent John Ruis said Friday that over the years, one such grant helped to build Callahan Middle, Yulee Primary and Fernandina Beach High schools.

"Small districts are eligible for the special facilities construction account," Ruis said. "If a survey requires a district to build a school and it cannot raise the money in three years, the state will loan the money. I don't know of any other advantage this [growing over 75,000] will take away from us."

Ruis said Nassau's increasing property tax base and population influx in recent years have given the school district the ability to build schools when needed - making the state loan unnecessary.

INCENTIVE MONEY AFFECTED

Economic Development Board Executive Director Melanie Ferreira said Friday that Nassau County already is looking at the impacts of losing its rural designation. Enterprise Florida, a public-private partnership working to bolster economic development statewide, offers more incentive money to companies that create certain jobs in rural counties than in urban counties, she said.

Ferreira said Nassau needs to starting lobbying the Legislature to raise the population threshold for rural counties.

"We can't wait until 10 years from now," she said. …

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