Jackson County residents are awakening to a financial crisis that is striking our community from the top to bottom.
The move to close Fire Rescue stations on some days due to insufficient staffing numbers brought the situation home to many, but the county's budget situation is neither sudden nor unexpected. In fact, it has been building for years and numerous local citizens and business people have raised concerns about it only to be promised callbacks that never came or reassurances that the matter was being studied.
In one case a local businessman was even told by an intermediary that he should get behind a specific county commissioner politically if he wanted to be heard.
So what happened? Where did the money go? What can we do about it?
Here are some answers that you have not read in the Jackson County Floridan or Jackson County Times. In their defense, the former often blames lack of staffing for its inability to cover key stories in the community while the latter sometimes says that it only covers "good news."
What is the problem?
The answer, in short, is that we are in the depths of an economic recession that goes far beyond what the rest of the nation suffered in 2008-2009.
Full-time employment in the county is down dramatically since around 2006 due to NAFTA which was a factor in the closings of the local Russell Corporation plants and facilities as well as other industrial operations; the closure of Dozier School for Boys due to the controversy and publicity that surrounded the facility; the loss or downsizing of businesses that supplied these facilities and, last but not least, a dramatic decline in the number of locally owned small businesses.
The net result of the above is that we have lost thousands of full-time jobs with benefits while at the same time local public assistance rolls have skyrocketed.
Financially, many more people in our community are hurting than our leaders seem to realize.
Consider these two statistics:
- Median income in Jackson County has declined from $36,442 in 2009 to $35,470 in 2016. This is a drop of $972 over seven years. As economic development experts will tell you, that is a shocking decline.
- The number of businesses in Jackson County has dropped from 863 in 2007 before the national recession began to 768 in 2017. In other words, we have lost 10% of our business community since 2007.
- Jackson County has 1,906 fewer people in the primary working age demographic (18-65) than it did just 8 years ago.
- Local officials often blame this on population aging - or as one county leader actually put it - "old people dying off." Census data, however, suggests that this is not the case. The county's population of residents over the age of 65 - many of whom still work to make ends meet - has indeed grown by 1,253 people since 2010. Unfortunately, we have lost 2,715 people in the 18-65 and 17 and under age groups.
- Jackson County has lost 617 households since 2009. If you think you are seeing more "for sale" signs along our roads and streets, you are.
- The drain in our labor force is a very real problem when it comes to attracting new industry to the community. If we can't demonstrate that we have a strong, prepared labor force, we can't attract industry. No factory wants to open somewhere only to find that it can't hire enough people to run its lines.
- Sales tax collections in the main category are down dramatically over the first 8 months of 2017-2018 when compared to the same line item for the same months in the year before the recession (2006-2007).
- The drop is bigger than you might think. This year, collections in this category are down by $244,823 from their level in the first 8 months of 2006-2007.
- Using 1-cent local option gas tax collections to measure this decline, the amount brought in during the first 7 months of the 2017-2018 fiscal year is down by $8,394 since 2006/2007.
- The real number has dropped from $391,034 during the first 7 months of 2006/2007 to $382,640 during the first 7 months of this fiscal year.
- All other gas tax collections that benefit the county are also down.
- Tourism tax (i.e. "bed tax") collections in Jackson County were $124,158 for the first four months of 2017-2018 (the most recent numbers available). This is a drop of $12,032 in actual dollars from 2006-2007 when collections totaled $136,190.
- Just as sales tax collections reflect retail sales in a community, tourism tax collections reflect hotel and campground stays. Fewer people are staying here overnight than were doing so one decade ago.
- Attendance at Blue Springs is down dramatically since the county commission doubled entrance fees. Numbers for the 2017 summer season show a decline of nearly 15,000 visitors since 2014, when fees were increased. Money collected at the gate is down since that year. Concession sales are down since that year. Boat rental fees are down. Pavilion rental fees are down. Total revenue from the park is down by around $18,000 from 3 years ago. If that trend continues this summer, the park will make less money than it did before fees were doubled while serving nearly 20,000 fewer local residents and visitors.
- The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity funded and approved the results of a $20,000 study on ways to improve tourism traffic along U.S. 90 in Jackson County. The plan was prepared by this writer and approved not only by the state, but also by the Tourist Development Council and the Board of County Commissioners. Since that time, several years ago, nothing has been done implement any of the recommendations. One county official even informed a group in Sneads last year that he "hadn't had time to read it" and wasn't sure what he had done with his copy.
- Local citizens raised and gave to the county more than $5,000 in funding for boardwalks on the Bellamy Bridge trail, an amount matched by the Tourist Development Council. County officials gave assurances that the money was sufficient for the purpose. Despite annual promises to build the footbridges - which will allow access to the popular tourism attraction during most times of high water - they still have not been built. The county now says that it has spent the money donated for the purpose and despite repeated requests has failed to answer specific questions about unauthorized expenditures from the fund.
- Requests that the Tourist Development Council lead a group to organize an annual reenactment of the Battle of Marianna were rejected. A reenactment of the battle staged for its 150th anniversary in 2014 attracted thousands of people.
- One of the landings on the Merritt's Mill Pond canoe trail has been closed by property owners and has not been replaced.
- The Upper Chipola River paddling trail, approved by the state after the county promised to maintain it, is barely maintained.
- The county's decade old effort to create an approved plan for development of tourism resources along Lake Seminole from Neals Landing on Highway 2 to Sneads is still not complete.
- The fall in tourism tax revenue is also reflected by the decline of gas tax collections. With our population and median income falling, our failure to return to pre-recession/pre-Dozier controversy levels of tourism has is hurting us in areas far beyond hotel stays.
- Holmes County to our west and Gadsden County to our east have increased their sales tax revenues during the same time that Jackson County has seen its revenues fall. In fact, those two counties along have increased sales tax collections by $879,000 during the period described above while Jackson County has suffered a decline of $244,000.
- Washington County and Holmes County, on US 90 and I-10 west of Jackson County, have increased their 1-cent local option gas tax collections while Jackson County has experienced a drop. Washington County's collections are up by $8,540 and Holmes County's by $2,076 while Jackson is down by more than $8,000.
- Tourism is increasing in Washington and Holmes Counties to our west and Gadsden County to our east, while falling in Jackson County. Washington County has increased its tourism tax collections over the period described above by $4,896. Holmes County is up by a remarkable $14,794. Gadsden County is up by $25,104. This reflects an increase of more than $40,000 in tourism tax collections by adjoining rural counties while Jackson County's dropped by more than $12,000.
- Clerk of Courts Clayton O. Rooks should lead a full audit of county funding to tell us how much is coming in and where it is going. This would help our leaders see places from which money can be moved or cut to assure that our most important county services - Fire Rescue, Law Enforcement, etc. - are not only funded but improved. Reducing these services is not an option. This would also help us identify any financial improprieties.
- County commissioners should consider an immediate moratorium on non-essential travel outside Jackson County by their employees. This money is needed to keep Fire Rescue running.
- Work with Chipola College, Baptist College of Florida, Troy University, FSU, FAMU, UF and other institutions to provide real training so county employees can improve themselves. We can always get better and improving the skills of the people who work for us is a good way to help them get better and more efficient at their jobs.
- Do not, under any circumstance, increase another tax or fee until our economic situation is turned around. Real people are suffering here. Median income is down. Our working age people are fleeing and taking their children with them. Use the money that we have to make things better. It can be done. Private businesses do it all day, everyday.
- Don't assume that every thought, criticism or idea is political. Most people here just want to see things get better.
- Work together. The county should work together with Sneads, Marianna, Graceville and other municipalities to find areas of agreement that all can support (and vice versa). Communities in specific parts of the county should work together. Malone, Campbellton and Graceville, for example, have Highway 2 in common. Perhaps they could work together to improve that corridor of the county? The same is true for the Historic Highway 90 Corridor that passes through Sneads, Grand Ridge, Marianna and Cottondale and the US 231 corridor that connects Campbellton, Jacob City, Cottondale, Alford and the Compass Lake area.
- Clean up! Make our interstate exits the cleanest and prettiest in Florida. You never know who is going to come off that highway to look around while out scouting locations for a new business or industry.
- Lower the entrance fees at Blue Springs back to $2 per person so local families - especially those with reduced incomes as a result of this situation - can afford to go.
- Work to make it easy to do business in Jackson County. Reduce fees for startups.
- Find a way to fix our awful cell and internet service. Let's face the fact: If we want to have a 21st century economy, we have to provide the infrastructure to attract 21st century businesses. Large swaths of Jackson County have no cell phone service and substandard (or no) internet service. Hold the feet of our existing providers to the fire and seek out other companies willing to solve the problem at THEIR expense in exchange for a chance to make money here.
- Invest in our young people. Seek out high school students here in Jackson County who want to major in business, tourism, engineering, law enforcement, fire rescue services, parks and recreation and more. Invest in them by helping with their college expenses in exchange for a commitment that they will return and work here for a set length of time. Provide them with internships and mentoring. If we can afford to help only one, that is one more than we can count on now.
- Listen to local business owners. They can tell you their stumbling blocks to growing and hiring more people.
- Seek out success stories in other places, not to duplicate but to learn how they created success. We have our own special place and want to keep it that way. We can always learn from others, though, about how they made their communities better places.
- County and city administrators and elected officials should return calls and answer emails from constituents.
- Finish projects that are on the drawing board. Get the Historic Highway 90 Corridor plan going. Washington and Holmes Counties are already ahead of us. We want to be a part of the success that they are already realizing.
- Dream. Look for ways to do something good instead of searching out stumbling blocks.
- Stop blaming others. Let's work together. We know that we need to. It means that some of our ideas will be pursued and some won't. That's fine. Movement is better than no movement.
- Take advantage of our human resources. We have many people in Jackson County who have achieved remarkable things in their lives. Listen to the advice and suggestions that they can offer.
- Improve our own corners. In other words, make our own neighborhoods better through elbow grease and cooperation. Not everything takes money to do. If we all improve our own neighborhoods, the whole county will improve.
- Get involved. This is a message to citizens especially. Attend meetings. Offer advice. Run for office. I admire anyone willing to put their name out there. I appreciate the service of all of our current elected officials, just as I appreciated the service of those who served before them and will appreciate the service of our next round of leaders. It is the American way.
- Care. We all have to care for each other and our communities. Churches, we need you now more than ever. Community organizations, we need you too. Individuals, you as well. Do everything you can to make things better.