Growing pains good problem for Clay County

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Northeast Florida is one of the fastest growing regions in the entire country. The seven counties that make up the Northeast Florida region have a combined population of 1,624,000. The City of Jacksonville is the 12th most populated city in the United States, just a few thousand people fewer than No. 11, Austin, Texas. Florida recently passed New York to become the third most populated state, behind California and Texas. Population growth is just as much a part of Florida as the beaches and Disney World.

Closer to home, Clay County is also growing rapidly. In 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau population for Clay was 191,000. The 2015 estimate is 204,000, a 5-year growth rate of 6.9 percent. The average growth rate for all Florida counties from 2010-2015 is 4.6 percent, making Clay’s growth rate 50 percent higher than the state average. Population projections by the University of Florida predict Clay’s population will hit 250,000 by 2025, and will exceed 300,000 by 2040. High-end projections show Clay’s population could exceed 300,000 a decade sooner, in 2030.

A growing population creates both advantages and challenges for citizens and local governments alike. More people means a larger economy as the larger population buys more goods, products and services. This leads to more job opportunities as companies grow to meet the increase in demand, and new companies are created to take advantage of the growing economy. But all of this growth also brings challenges as well.

A growing population demands more services. Especially in the short-term, transportation infrastructure and educational resources are strained from the rapidly growing population. More people means more cars on the road, and more students in the classrooms. To accommodate the growth, all service facilities from roads and schools to hospitals and emergency responders must be expanded as well. And this growth in services must be funded.

Growth does lead to an increase in tax revenues. But, the demand for increased services is instantaneous when the new family moves to Clay while their tax revenue is collected slower than their demand needs to be funded. And given Clay’s conservative tax rates and low fees, Clay has struggled to keep up with the current growth, never mind the projections for future growth.

At the Feb. 28 Board of County Commissioners meeting, the discussion about how to fund transportation infrastructure continued. Options include an additional gas tax, an additional sales tax, transportation impact fees and an increase in the ad valorem millage rate. One thing is certain, the current level of funding will not keep up with current growth, let alone projected growth.

Clay County is fortunate is so many ways. We enjoy a safe, family-oriented, healthy quality of life. We have one of the best public school systems in Florida, and it is getting better every day. And we have a group of elected and appointed leaders who are committed to maintaining our great quality of life. But our public servants need our support and our input on how to fund the much needed improvements and expansions in so many of our public services.

Florida TaxWatch* compares per capita taxes and fees collected by all 67 Florida counties in 39 different categories. Clay’s average rank across all 39 varied categories is No. 48 out of 67 counties. That means 72 percent of the counties in Florida pay more per capita taxes and fees than Clay does. We cannot continue to be one of the nicest places to live, and continue to pay so little relative to other places.

*http://www.floridataxwatch.org/library/howcountiescompare.aspx

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