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Ousted commissioner pushing for fees, casts sole vote against budget

After Michael Crews was elected to the Baker County Commission in 2008 he began calling for measures to ease the tax burden on property owners by implementing special assessments that everybody would pay to cover the costs of public services.

He’s still spreading that message just weeks before he leaves office after losing his re-election bid in an atmosphere of public protests over county budget issues, including the continued use of reserve funds to cover deficits, and pending sand mine proposals.

Mr. Crews cast the only vote against the $28.2 million 2012-13 county budget at the commission meeting on October 2, which he later explained was his way of saying that the county had not done enough to ease the tax load on property owners by spreading out the costs of public services more equitably.

“I did not vote in support of the budget for multiple reasons,” Mr. Crews said in an interview on October 8. “One is because the way it is currently done is a burden (on too many property owners) because the cost of services is falling on the few.”

He said the county should increase the current assessments for solid waste disposal and firefighting services to fully fund those operations so that less reliance is placed on property tax revenues. He also said, as he proposed last year when he was board chairman, that an assessment should be levied on every household for emergency medical services, which is subsidized each year by the general fund.

“I think what we do have assessments for should be set high enough to cover all the expenses,” Mr. Crews said. “The faster the county moves toward assessments and away from property taxes would be in the best interest of the county as a whole. My first year on the board I mentioned that was what we should do.”

For the past few years the county has covered budget deficits by transferring money from its reserve funds to avoid raising taxes or cutting services. This year’s budget contains about $1.5 million in reserve funds, which was about $700,000 less than it would have been without additional spending cuts made by the county manager last month.

Commissioners supported the use of reserve funds to balance the budget, though they all agreed the practice has to stop. Assessments and more efficient delivery of services would help avoid future withdrawals from reserves, Mr. Crews said.

Though he opposed the budget, Mr. Crews said he supported the property tax rate, which was set at 7.1495 mills, or roughly $7.15 for every $1,000 of taxable assessed property valuation.

“I believe it to be justified and fair based on the current system we have,” he said. “We could increase it to 10 mills and it wouldn’t cover our deficit.”

But there is a better way of doing things, said Mr. Crews, a former Baker County deputy sheriff and currently security director at Northeast Florida State Hospital.

“You can only go to the expense side so many times before you have to start talking about cutting services,” he said, adding that he was satisfied with the spending reductions made this year. “I wasn’t happy about it last year, but this year I think the county cut as much as we can.

“The future board is going to have to wrestle with the revenue side. It would be (politically) easier for future boards to increase the millage than tackle the issue of a more fair, across-the-board user type deal, such as assessments.”

If he had won reelection, Mr. Crews said, he would have pushed for a series of public workshops at different locations throughout the county to encourage residents to participate in a discussion on how best to fund future government services, including the issues of assessments, taxes and expenditures.

“The commission and the public needs to discuss what services the county is about to do away with, or how to pay for the ones they want to keep,” he said.

His ideas for funding county government were not the only reason Mr. Crews attracted opposition this election year, however. There was also the issue of two sand mining proposals, which generated tremendous public opposition, but which Mr. Crews refused to take a position against pending further reviews by an independent firm and state agencies.

“The sand mine thing, that was one thing (that worked against him),” he said. “I refused to take a position on it — for or against.”

Mr. Crews said he had been “bribed” by sand mine opponents who told him they would deliver hundreds of votes for his re-election if he would commit to voting against the sand mine proposals. But he said it “would have been unfair of me” to render a decision before all the facts were in.

After all that’s happened, he said he doesn’t regret any decisions or positions he’s taken as a county commissioner.

“When I lay down at night I worry about a lot of things, but nothing that I did as a county commissioner,” he said, adding that the voters made their decision and, “I’ll live with it.”

However, he said he fully intends to run for political office again, though declining to say whether that would be for a seat on the county commission again or some other office. Meanwhile, he said he’ll make himself available to serve in any capacity on any county advisory board that sees fit to have him.

In other business during the October 2 board meeting commissioners:

• Renewed an annual labor contract with the Florida Council of Industrial and Public Employees Local 2120, the collective bargaining representatives for employees in the county road and solid waste departments.

No new language was put in the contract, which calls for a four-day weekly work schedule and 12 paid holidays annually and allows union members to accrue up to 120 personal leave days. Like all other county employees, no raises were approved for union members this year.

“Should the Board of County Commissioners decide to make salary adjustments or give bonuses anytime during the fiscal year Road Department and Solid Waste employees will be entitled to the same adjustments or bonuses made for other county employees,” the contract states.

• Approved a request to exempt a proposed residential development called Saddle Ridge, on a paved portion of Claude Harvey Road, from subdivision regulations. The site, owned by Thomas R. Rhoden’s KRC Properties Ltd., consists of eight 5-acre lots west of CR 125.

A narrow access road between two of the lots leads to another 3,400 acres of undeveloped land also owned by KRC Properties. Each lot will have its own driveway and culvert.

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