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FL: Should county carrying over 40% be allowed to raise taxes?

St. Johns County government has been failing left and right during Sunshine Week with vigilant watchdogs reporting to Historic City News in St. Augustine that a lack of transparency and accountability has created a dark cloud of suspicion over both overpaid bureaucrats and elected officials whose terms are up this year.

For most of the past five years, in addition to being a Historic City News reader, Dennis Clarke has been a Resolutions & Receiverships Specialist with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) in Jacksonville while living in northwest St. Johns County. He participated in multiple bank closings and post-closing receivership work. Among other responsibilities, he supervised the termination of employee benefit plans formerly sponsored by failed banks and served as the point-of-contact for third party administrators, custodians and financial advisors throughout the termination process. Clarke previously served as CFO to First Bank of Jacksonville and Independent BancShares, Inc.

He writes to Watchdog Wire – Florida State Editor Michael Gold to report:

Letter: St. Johns County transparency rated “partly cloudy”
Dennis M Clarke

St. Johns, FL

Dear Editor:

So, just how transparent is the Saint Johns County website? While the website may provide a wealth of information, one has to dig a little further into the details in order to make sense of various programs the County Commissioners tout as contributing to our collective “quality of life.”

Consider the county budget and financial plan, for example. The county’s accounting system consists of about 90 funds, 240 department codes and 220 expenditure accounts. The system is overly complex, by featuring too many funds, non-functional department codes, and too many accounts. By contrast, the system is insufficiently detailed, by omitting specific recurring and non-recurring projects or jobs.

As a consequence; the financial profile of the county is not very transparent and is likely hard to govern and manage effectively.

I requested and received from the Office of Management and Budget an electronic version of the current financial plan plus the last two years actual revenue and expenditures. The last time I looked, the county website only offered the PDF version of the budget and financial plan which makes any type of financial analysis and comparison difficult at best.

One of the most notable features of the county’s budget is the so-called “carry-forward” account (#38999).

The account balance was $236 million at the end of fiscal year 2012, $250 million at the end of fiscal year 2013, and is projected to be $265 million at the end of 2014.

The total expenditures for those years were $622 million, $634 million and $605 million, respectively.

On average, the cash balance in that equity account carried forward a whopping 40% of the total annual expenditures!

Given that many projects occur over multiple years, an itemized analysis of the unspent funds should be disclosed. In fact, any year-to-year variation (positive or negative) of more than 5% of any fund, department code or account, warrants a detailed explanation by county officials.

Except for multi-year projects, no fund should see a carry forward of more than 5% of the previous years’ revenue. Otherwise, taxpayers are being overcharged.

I decided to focus on one aspect of the county’s operation that involved the allocation of state and federal resources, in addition to subsidies provided by county taxpayers-transportation. The result of my analysis is contained in my report, entitled “Public Transit in Saint Johns County, Florida”.

I plan to continue to analyze the county’s financial situation, particularly in light of the numerous signals being broadcast by the county administrator and commissioners crying for more taxes.

Michael Gold

As the Florida editor for Watchdog Wire, my goal is to work with other citizen journalists, like you, to help compensate for the lack of mainstream news reporting to expose waste, fraud and abuse that exists in government. My colleagues at Franklin Center, and peers in the Citizen Watchdog movement, share a belief that government transparency and accountability is not a conservative or liberal idea - it is an American idea. A free flow of information is essential to maintaining our free republic, and that starts with a free press -- and that starts with you.

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Categories: Budget and Finance, Commentary, Government Transparency, Must Read, Policy, Politics, Taxes, Waste, Fraud and Abuse
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