CHIPLEY — Changes to the ordinance that established the Sunny Hills MSBU may be coming in the near future — changes meant to speed up the pay off of the $1.66 million loan the county owes for road work in the subdivision.
The Municipal Service Benefit Unit, or MSBU, is an ordinance-created tax district, or as County Attorney Jeff Goodman said, “An area on the map.” Within that area, funds are raised to provide services to the residents in that designated region. However, the MSBU is not an entity unto itself.
The MSBU is a mechanism by which a county can fund a particular service or facility that provides a special benefit to property from a levy of special assessments, said Attorney Crystie Voehl of Tallahassee, from Goodman’s office.
“The MSBU is not a legal entity, it cannot own property,” Goodman told the Washington County Commissioners Thursday in a BOCC workshop. “That is something we’ve heard in the past, and I want to set that straight — An MSBU can’t own property or equipment. It is just an area on a map.”
Ultimately, all responsibility for the MSBU area falls back on the county commissioners, Goodman said, and Voehl gave a presentation to the commissioners explaining what MSBUs are and how they work, as well as what alternatives exist to the MSBU.
Currently, the county collects $31.25 a year from residents and property owners within the MSBU, and that money is used to provide services to those living in Sunny Hills, as well as pay down the $1.66 million in debt — a loan that is not scheduled to be paid off until 2028, Goodman said.
Voehl explained that an MSBU may provide services including fire protection, law enforcement, recreation services and facilities, streets and other essential facilities, but only within the MSBU.
In the past, the county has purchased maintenance equipment for use in Sunny Hills with MSBU money, and currently the primary expenses involve streetlights, mowing and paying on the loan. The equipment bought with MSBU funds should be used within Sunny Hills, Goodman said.
Other alternative ways of funding the Sunny Hills expenses could be a establishing a Special District, or a establishing Municipal Service Taxing Unit, which establishes a millage tax rather than an annual amount.
Voehl noted that both of these options involve a tax millage that would count toward the county’s overall millage, even though it is only paid within the designated area. “The MSBU allows for more flexibility, and doesn’t lock into the county’s millage.”
The county is limited by statute to 10 mills, Goodman said.
“It’d be next to impossible to implement a special district out there,” Goodman added.
Another option, incorporating Sunny Hills as a city or town, is also difficult, Voehl said.
The county has to have some mechanism in place to raise funds to pay off the loan, however. “The debt service creates a lack of flexibility,” Goodman said. The debt ties the county to the MSBU, and the best way to sever that tie would be to pay off the debt.
“I think the county should focus on paying off the loan,” Goodman said.
Commissioner Lynn Gothard asked if the MSBU could be desolved and the county continue to collect the assessment to pay toward the debt.
“The assessment can be put toward the debt,” Voehl said. “The commissioners can designate where the funds go.” She said typically, ordinances establishing MSBUs designate line items showing where the funds will go and which services will be provided.
The county’s MSBU ordinance could be updated with set amounts designated for maintenance and lighting, putting the rest of the tax funds raised toward retiring the debt.
“I think this is a good idea,” said Commissioner Charles Brock. Commissioner Todd Abbott asked if County Manager Steve Joyner could bring to the next workshop information on how much maintenance and lighting in Sunny Hills costs. “The rest of the money could go to paying off the debt,” Abbott said. “I would like to see us make some decisions and get this rolling immediately.”
“We want to pay this debt off,” Brock said. “I think we need to take the bull by the horns, In theory, we could pay this loan off in four years.”