Collier County government’s debt one of highest per person in Florida

Collier’s debt came to $2,325 per resident, nearly three times the state average in fiscal 2008, the most recent year for which state data was available to analyze. In fiscal 2008, the state had the county’s total debt at $774 million. Today, the county has it at $765 million, and the bonds issued for it all receive high ratings, a clear indication the county is successfully managing that debt.

— Collier County government had more debt per resident than all but two other Florida counties, Duval and Miami-Dade, in fiscal 2008, a Daily News analysis shows.

Collier’s debt came to $2,325 per resident, nearly three times the state average in fiscal 2008, the most recent year for which state data was available to analyze.

In fiscal 2008, the state had the county’s total debt at $774 million. Today, the county has it at $765 million, and the bonds issued for it all receive high ratings, a clear indication the county is successfully managing that debt.

The Daily News analysis also has many caveats, among them the fact that other counties have more cities, which chip away at debt their county governments would otherwise have to take on.

Collier commissioners are nearing key decisions on the $130 million local cost for a proposed Jackson Laboratory genetics research center in eastern Collier. Such an increase in debt could push the per resident figure to nearly $2,700 today.

“Well, yeah, it makes me want to think: So what?” Commission Chairman Fred Coyle said when asked about the analysis. “You don’t normally compare a place like Collier County, which is mostly a rural county that is spread out, with a densely populated county like Miami-Dade.”

County Commissioner Fred Coyle

County Commissioner Fred Coyle

“Well, yeah, it makes me want to think: So what?” Commission Chairman Fred Coyle said when asked about the analysis. “You don’t normally compare a place like Collier County, which is mostly a rural county that is spread out, with a densely populated county like Miami-Dade.”

Coyle pointed to the housing boom, and the many, large important infrastructure projects the county built as a result, as a reason why the county’s ranking got to where it was in 2008.

“The point is that Collier County had not built any infrastructure for 10 years,” Coyle said, noting how expensive such projects can be in South Florida. “Collier County is a very special place, and it takes money to make it a very special place.”

The Daily News analysis used financial data from the Florida Department of Financial Services Local Government Electronic Reporting database and population estimates from the state Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic research. For Duval County, Jacksonville data was used, because it is a consolidated city-county.

A similar analysis was run for fiscal 2000, before the onset of the large growth spurt. At that time, Collier County ranked 18th on debt per resident.

Water, sewer, road, public safety and other projects pushed the debt up $594.4 million until Collier bumped past Charlotte County, which it was nearly tied with in fiscal 2007 on debt per resident.

Lee, Charlotte and Sarasota counties also dealt with massive growth and ranked in the top 10 in fiscal 2008 for debt per resident. Since 2000, Sarasota and Charlotte have gone down one spot and Lee has gone from being ranked second to fifth in terms of debt per resident.

Jim Gibson, who serves on Collier County’s finance-minded productivity committee, said those infrastructure projects were badly needed and praised commissioners’ decisions to do them. Gibson retired to Naples in 1996 after a career in government finance with Baltimore County.

“You’re in a situation where you’re issuing more debt than you are in a normal period,” Gibson said, then noting the other high-growth Southwest Florida counties. “You have three contiguous counties that were all experiencing the same things in terms of the growth problem.”

County staff raised several concerns over aspects of the Daily News analysis, not the least of which was its reliance on total debt, even though some debt, like water and sewer district debt and voter-approved debt isn’t paid on by all county residents. Also, some county governments don’t even have water and sewer district debt, county staff noted.

Former auditor, accountant and attorney Georgia Hiller, who is running for the District 2 commission seat, said it doesn’t matter what type of debt it is.

“The fact that other counties don’t have water-sewer district debt is irrelevant,” Hiller said. “Debt is debt.”

In a thought echoed by several others interviewed for this story, Hiller was concerned with the analysis’ failure to take into account the debt held by all the cities in the other counties. Collier County has only three cities, two of which, Marco Island and Everglades City, are relatively small.

The Collier County Commission meets at 9 a.m. Tuesday in commission chambers at the county government complex, U.S. 41 East at Airport-Pulling Road in East Naples. A presentation from the county’s Productivity Committee, which has been studying financial aspects of the Jackson Lab proposal, is scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday.

“Collier County is not like any county in the country,” said Collier Clerk of Courts Dwight Brock, whose office manages county finances.

Brock’s office does use “comparables,” as they are known in government speak, to benchmark Collier with five other similar Florida counties. While only somewhat similar, for fiscal 2009, the county did outrank those five others on total debt per person.

“If there’s a common statistical figure that all people can relate to, that’s it, despite all its caveats,” Gibson said of the analysis.

While Gibson said the county is doing a great job of managing its debt, noting a recent successful bond sale, Hiller, who once served on the productivity committee, disagreed. She feels the county has taken on its debt without a well-developed plan.

“There was a great deal of waste and the waste continues,” Hiller said. “The county also, in its lack of capital budgeting, failed to consider the carrying cost of the infrastructure they invested in.”

County staff uses a different analysis to benchmark the debt situation, a ratio listed in the county’s debt policy. County staff members divide the money they raise to pay debt with their required debt payments, minus voter-approved and enterprise debt like water and sewer debt.

Although a considerably different analysis than the county runs to determine a debt ratio, the Daily News did compare each county’s total revenue to each county’s total debt payments for fiscal 2008.

In that analysis, Collier County ranked much lower, at ninth out of the 62 counties that could be analyzed, below both Lee County, which was at seventh, and Charlotte County, which was ranked second.

Dwight Brock

Dwight Brock

“You are putting yourself at great risk in terms of trying to deal with emergencies or disasters that may strike,” said Collier Clerk of Courts Dwight Brock, whose office manages county finances. Brock said debt ratings agencies already have asked about Collier County’s plans with Jackson Laboratory.

In 1989, the county adopted the policy that required its maximum debt ratio be 13 percent. Currently, the county is at an estimated 9.4 percent. Staff members suggest the Jackson Laboratory debt could bring the figure to the mid-12 percent range.

“They’re rated at AA right now, which is a good credit-rated investment,” county Budget Director Mark Isackson said of the county’s bonds.

“We weren’t put on a negative watch, which I think a lot of counties can’t say that,” Isackson said of the economic downturn’s effect on these ratings.

For Brock, that is the key factor in the upcoming decision regarding Jackson Laboratory setting up a site near Ave Maria. Will county government weather the economic storm with all those new debt payments and with declining income, even if it has a hurricane?

“You are putting yourself at great risk in terms of trying to deal with emergencies or disasters that may strike,” Brock said of the county’s proposal.

Brock said debt ratings agencies already have asked about Collier County’s plans with Jackson Laboratory.

“They did ask about it. They survey everything,” said Crystal Kinzel, Brock’s chief financial officer. “It does impact your rating.”

Commissioners will approve the maximum property tax rate for the next year this Tuesday, possibly taking into account the proposed Jackson Laboratory project.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Top 10 counties with the highest debt per resident, fiscal 2008

Rank......County......Total debt......Population.......Per resident.

1............. Duval.....$8.87 billion.......904,971...........$9,808.33

2......Miami-Dade...$10.7 billion ....2,477,289.........$4,342.59

3.............Collier.....$774 million.....332,854............$2,325.34

4........St. Johns....$388 million.......181,180.......... $2,143.95

5............ Lee.......... $1.2 billion.......623,725............$1,931.63

6.........Orange.......$2.10 billion......1,114,979.........$1,881.15

7........Charlotte......$287 million.....165,781............$1,735.26

8........Sarasota......$655 million.....393,608............$1,665.83

9.......Osceola........$407 million......273,709...........$1,490.15

10...Palm Beach...$1.89 billion......1,294,654........$1,460.83

Source: Fiscal year 2008 financial data from the Florida Department of Financial Services and 2008 population estimates from the Florida Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research.

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Comments » 9

OldMarcoMan writes:

Guess its true that smart can end up any where, but s----- falls close to the tree.
Guess that ill designed Boat Ramp and the even worse Jolly Bridge 2 dont look like such a great idea now.
But then again when Bill Trotter run for County Commission as Fialas fair haired boy more of the same will stay more of the same.

jwputnam writes:

This justs adds to my depression. Government has run amock and the prople are doing nothing about it. We will sit and watch as Cokkier gives what little money we have left to Jackson Labs. A disgrace!

OldMarcoMan writes:

I like Putnam, I hate Putnam but in this case John is right.
The CCC has lost touch with reality.
Collier County is like a rich guy that lost all his money but keeps acting like he still is loaded.
Its time to get some true conservatives up there like Forcht or one of his guys and send the tax and spenders home.

dwbadger writes:

Klabautermann....What does the KKK have to do with the issue in this article? Nothing, so why bring it up? You posted two comments and neither one of them was a comment, just insults. These blogs are for people to share their thougts on the subject, not to sling insults. If you don't have a thought on the topic, please refrain from posting comments.

dwbadger writes:

This is a sad state that the people of the county let happen. While the building boom was going on the infrastructure was required. We need to live within our means in the county.

jwputnam writes:

in response to OldMarcoMan:

I like Putnam, I hate Putnam but in this case John is right.
The CCC has lost touch with reality.
Collier County is like a rich guy that lost all his money but keeps acting like he still is loaded.
Its time to get some true conservatives up there like Forcht or one of his guys and send the tax and spenders home.

Wait a minute! Wait just a dam minute! What's not to like?

jwputnam writes:

Correct

John W. Putnam
1420 Salvadore Court

jwputnam writes:

EASILY availabe info on the net. EASY! Tax info as well. Besides, who really cares? Anybody targeting me would get pretty slim pickings, trust me.

OldMarcoMan writes:

What John ?
My friends friends are my friends,, just as my friends enemies are mine too. Heaven only knows why but Ted seems to like you,,,, go figure??
I guess its that bad habit he has always had of doing what right and not what's popular,

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