Out of Options- Northeast- Nov. 2002
The situation is particularly grim in Clay County schools. The schools perform well, with nearly two-thirds scoring A's on the state's FCAT test and none with D's or F's. But the school system has to pay off some $75 million in borrowing -- a figure expected to rise to $117 million next year -- and faces the prospect of having to build a school every year to accommodate the 700 new students it expects annually.
The financial crisis has led a number of elected officials in this conservative county to do what many once thought politically impossible: Advocate raising taxes. In September, the school board voted unanimously to ask voters to increase the local option sales tax a half-cent to 71¼2 cents. If approved, the March referendum would raise $247 million over 20 years.
"I realize we are going against the conservative mantra of no new taxes, but I'm not sure we have a choice," says Clay County Commission Chairman Patrick McGovern, a referendum supporter. "People are going to need to choose between low taxes and quality schools."
Clay County Superintendent of Schools David Owens blames the state's funding formula for much of his district's financial woes. Clay, with a $156-million annual schools budget, ranks in the bottom third among Florida counties in school funding.
Public education isn't the only government service under the financial gun. The sheriff's office and fire department are having trouble maintaining service levels, and planners say the county must spend tens of millions of dollars on road projects or face gridlock on already overcrowded arteries.
McGovern says the commission may soon have to follow the school board's lead. The county is considering impact fees on new development and increasing gasoline and property taxes, which have remained level for the past 10 years.
"We can't stop growth, but we can do a better job of making our new development pay for itself," says Owens. "I realize it's not very popular for elected officials to support raising taxes, but we have simply run out of alternatives."
IN THE NEWS
Alachua County -- Ixion Biotechnology has started clinical trials in Germany on a drug that treats primary hyperoxaluria, a rare childhood disease that afflicts nearly 4,000 children and adolescents and can lead to kidney failure.
Clay County -- A memorial on Town Center Boulevard in The Parks office complex will honor Clay County veterans who died in battle. Architect Kurt Jensen, Atlantic Engineering Services and Powell & Hinkle Engineering will donate their services to help build the Fleming Island memorial.
About 41,000 people -- or 60% of all Clay County workers -- commute to jobs outside the county every day, the second-highest rate for any Florida county, according to the 2000 Census.
Fernandina Beach -- City Manager Robert Mearns cut close to $150,000 from the city budget after commissioners, bowing to pressure from local business owners, decided not to raise taxes.
Gainesville -- The Alliance for Economic Development honored five Alachua County companies as Business of the Year: Flightline Gainesville, which runs parts of Gainesville Regional Airport and is recognized for its role in Angel Flight, a program that arranges transportation for critically ill patients; Gainesville Raceway; Saturn of Gainesville; Environmental Consulting & Technology; and CH2M Hill, an engineering consulting company.
Hamilton County -- PCS Phosphate's White Springs plant plans to hire 300 workers before January as it resumes production of a fertilizer component. The plant, which also manufactures animal food, laid off 387 employees in early 2001 when it stopped making diammonium phosphate.
Jacksonville -- Effective Jan. 1, 14,000 seniors in Duval and Clay counties will be dropped from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida's Medicare HMO, Medicare & More. Blue Cross officials blame insufficient federal funding for the decision.
A Duval County jury awarded nursing home operator Jack Carter $20 million in July. Carter claimed the state Agency for Health Care Administration forced his Southlake Nursing and Rehabilitation Center into receivership in 1998. A judge recently rejected the state's request for a new trial. The judgment is the largest ever against the agency.
Flagler Development, a subsidiary of Florida East Coast Industries, has renamed the Gran Park at Jacksonville development Flagler Center. The company also plans to convert the complex from light industrial/office to "class-A corporate." Tenants include Alliance Mortgage, Allstate Insurance, Suddath Logistics and, pending state approval, a 125-bed Baptist Medical Center satellite hospital.
Local restaurateur Vince O'Rourke plans to open Eclate Jazz Club in February in an area of downtown with few evening entertainment options. O'Rourke hopes to draw customers from Berkman Plaza and new downtown apartment complexes.
Jaxport set a U.S. record by processing 600,000 vehicles during its latest fiscal year, beating out New York/New Jersey just 10 months into its fiscal year.
Ocala -- Over the objections of several neighbors, Marion County commissioners gave the Masjid Darul-Islam mosque permission to build the county's first Muslim cemetery. The 432-plot burial ground will occupy nearly 1 acre behind the mosque at 6915 W. State Road 40.
Orange Park -- Construction is set to begin on the Thrasher-Horne Center for the Arts at St. Johns River Community College in Orange Park. The center will feature a state-of-the-art 1,750-seat performance hall and a business and tourism complex that will be available for trade shows to promote business, tourism and arts. The college and Clay County will jointly operate the tourism center.
St. Johns County -- County commissioners launched an incentives program to provide tax rebates, lower utility rates and other subsidies to industries that locate or expand within the county. Incentives will target corporate headquarters, medical equipment companies and recreational equipment suppliers.
A GEM OF A FIND
NASSAU COUNTY -- A north Florida teacher who does not want to be identified found a 32.38-carat emerald in a conch shell while working with an Amelia Island treasure-hunting outfit at the wreck of the Santa Margarita off Key West. Officials with Amelia Research & Recovery say the discovery proves the 17th-century Spanish galleon was smuggling emeralds, since no precious stones were listed on its manifest. No value has been placed on the emerald yet.