CHIPLEY — The Washington County Board of County Commissioners heard a report Thursday morning on a recent community meeting in Sunny Hills, but still made no decisions on the fate of the Sunny Hills Municipal Service Benefit Unit.
“We held a community meeting in Sunny Hills on March 14, and about 95 people were present,” said Commissioner Lynn Gothard. “It was a very good meeting, we got a lot of feedback and suggestions.”
The commissioners took no action Thursday, but the fate of the Sunny Hills MSBU has been an ongoing topic at BOCC meetings this year.
The commissioners started discussing the MSBU in earnest on Jan. 24, when attorney Crystie Voehl of Tallahassee, a lawyer from County Attorney Jeff Goodman’s law firm, gave the board a presentation on the history of the MSBU.
An MSBU is an ordinance-created tax district and is a “an area on a map,” Goodman said at the January meeting, and all responsibility for the MSBU area falls back on the county commissioners.
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.
At the Feb. 28 board meeting, Sal Zuricka presented to the commissioners the MSBU advisory board’s recommendation that all services to Sunny Hills be terminated and all incoming MSBU funds applied to the retirement of the $1.66 million debt.
The primary services the commissioners want to keep going for Sunny Hills are street lights and mowing the right-of-ways on the main boulevards.
Zuricka said the Sunny Hills group strongly recommends that the dissolution be done as soon as possible.
Zuricka also recommended two members of the advisory board should stay in place to monitor the disbursement of the money.
Gothard suggested the community meeting in Sunny Hills, and she, along with Commissioner Todd Abbott and County Manager Steve Joyner, met with Sunny Hills residents on March 14 to hear the community’s ideas about the future of the MSBU.
“I came away from that meeting seeing two basic options,” Gothard said.
Option one would be to put all the MSBU assessment funds toward paying off the debt, then discontinue the assessments. Another option would be to pay off the debt, then keep a reduced assessment in place to provide funds to keep services such as mowing and street lights.
Both options Gothard mentioned included using as much of the MSBU assessment funds as possible to pay off the debt by 2016. The MSBU cannot be totally dismantled by the county until the debt is paid off, since it was created by ordinance to raise funds which were used to pay for road repairs.
“Another issue that came up was that we should put measures in place to be sure spending of the MSBU never occurs again,” Gothard said.
She noted that the county is engaged in a lawsuit with a group of Sunny Hills residents, and said the group was seeking $7 million from the county in damages. At the community meeting, Gothard said she received a note from another Sunny Hills group also threatening to sue the county.
“It was apparent to me that a number of the people want to continue the MSBU,” Abbott said. “When the MSBU was formed, it was formed for a purpose. Can that purpose be altered?” Abbott asked Goodman.
Goodman said the Sunny Hills MSBU ordinance was broader than a typical ordinance, and that the ordinance could be changed to narrow the focus of the MSBU. “Most MSBU ordinances you see now in the state are very specific.” Goodman said he would suggest terminating the MSBU then starting a new one with a more specific scope.
“This has been an ongoing issue, and I think the board just wants to make things clear,” said Abbott.
Another problem the county faces is future maintenance of Sunny Hills’ roadways, Abbott said.
“Those are county roads, and we will have to maintain them,” Abbott said.
Commissioner Charles Brock said the road conditions were the main reason the MSBU was created. “Those roads were nothing but potholes, potholes, potholes.”