Yearly financial report shows county is lean and growing

Indian River County’s population is the highest ever, land values are close to pre-recession levels, the average wage is up and unemployment is down. Despite fat times, however, the county is remaining conservative in its spending and is paying down debt, according to the financial report for fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2017.

Indian River County Clerk of the Court and Comptroller Jeff Smith presented the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report to the County Commission last month. It reveals the county had a rare, totally clean audit.

The independent auditing firm, Rehmann Robson CPA, had no negative findings and no comments on the county’s finances, which include the general and special funds and the budgets for the county’s five elected constitutional offices: the sheriff’s department, tax collector, property appraiser, supervisor of elections and clerk of the court/comptroller.

Smith said the county is fiscally conservative and limits government. Direct services – public safety – which includes the sheriff’s office, firefighters and emergency services, comprises 46 percent of expenditures at $83.4 million, he said, while general government is less than 14 percent, at about $24.7 million.

The county spent a total of about $181.3 million last year, about $6 million more than the year before  with most of the increase going to public safety.

Smith said nearly half the county’s revenue comes from property taxes, a revenue stream that has increased with rising property values. Taxable land values increased from $14.3 billion in 2016 to $16.3 billion in 2017, which is only $2.3 billion shy of 2008 pre-recession values.

In 2008 the county collected nearly $100 million in property taxes, in 2017 it collected nearly $90.2 million, which is about $5 million more than the previous year.

Nearly 4,000 people moved out of the county after the recession hit, shrinking the population to 138,000 in 2010. Now the population is nearly 149,000, surpassing the pre-recession 2008 population of 141,667.

At the same time, there has been dramatic improvement in the county’s employment situation. Unemployment peaked at 15.2 percent during 2010. By 2016 it was down to 6.7 percent and it declined further, to 4.6 percent, at the end of 2017. That was about a point higher than the 3.6 statewide unemployment rate and about half a point higher than the nationwide average. The average wage in the county has increased substantially even as unemployment has fallen.

Most remarkable among Smith’s financial highlights was the county’s incredibly low debt level. It was nearly $129 million in 2008, which equated to $910 per person. By 2017, that figure had been cut by two-thirds, with county debt of only $44 million representing a per capita debt of $295.

County Administrator Jason Brown noted the national debt per person is nearly $65,000 and state debt nearly $6,000 per person.

“The government that governs closest to the people governs best,” Brown said. “We’ve borrowed a lot less on behalf of the people than state or federal government.”

Chairperson Peter O’Bryan agreed. “Our strong financial health is a huge selling point for the county. It tells people and businesses looking to locate here that the local government is doing a very good job with local dollars.”

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