County’s death count related to COVID-19 reaches 29


Dr. Eugenia Ngo-Seidel, director of the county health department, started back-to-back meetings of the Nassau County Board of County Commissioners Wednesday by providing an update on the county’s coronavirus pandemic statistics as of that morning.

“Unfortunately, we’ve had 15 additional hospitalizations and five new deaths,” Ngo-Seidel said.

As of Thursday, the county’s official death count related to COVID-19, the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, reached 29, 2% of all cases reported so far, according to a post on Nassau County Emergency Management’s Facebook page.

As of Wednesday morning, Baptist Medical Center Nassau was treating six COVID-19 patients, three of whom were in ICU, according to Ngo-Seidel. As of Thursday morning, the report posted on NCEM’s Facebook page showed five patients at Baptist Nassau.

“The key message we have is the importance of testing. A number of our Nassau cases have reported very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all at the time of their COVID diagnosis. Some (may have) thought (it’s) just allergies or (a) mild cold. We want to stress that if you are having symptoms to get tested and take advantage of three special testing events that we have in the county this week that are free for any resident of any age,” she said.

Ngo-Seidel added that free testing is scheduled from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday at the Eight Flags Shopping Center at 1014 S.14th St. in Fernandina Beach.

Commissioner Aaron Bell asked Ngo-Seidel about any results after the opening of schools.

“It is still a little early to tell. I think that this week will be the key one to watch,” she responded. “Schools have an excellent partnership with a company that’s going to be able provide in-school flu vaccinations, and flu vaccinations are very important this year because we want everyone that can get vaccinated to do so to prevent complications from flu, hospitalizations from flu.”

Greg Foster, director of Nassau County Emergency Management, said that agency will be giving “traffic-related assistance” at testing sites. NCEM is attempting specifically to get the word out to school-age children and the parents of school-age children about testing opportunities. Foster said NCEM has a 60-day stockpile of personal protective equipment, following guidance from the state. Foster is continuing to look for vendors of N95 masks.

After hearing from Ngo-Seidel and Foster, the BOCC voted unanimously to extend the current state of emergency in Nassau County due to COVID-19. County Manager and Attorney Mike Mullin told the board that Gov. Ron DeSantis extended his statewide emergency order for an additional two months, effective last Friday.

Assistant County Manager Taco Pope, who will soon take over as county manager from Mullin, said additional information regarding individual grants under the CARES Act will come by next Wednesday.

Approximately one hour later, the second meeting began, with the sole item on the agenda being an update from Office of Management and Budget Director Megan Diehl on the fiscal year 2020-21 budget.

Diehl’s presentation noted a “tentative” budget hearing scheduled for Sept. 14. Within 15 days after the tentative millage rate for property taxes and the next fiscal year budget is set by the board, the county must advertise its intent to adopt and make final that millage rate and budget. The final hearing must take place two to five days after the advertisement is published. The final hearing is scheduled for Sept. 28.

Diehl asked for clear direction from the commissioners on “where the millage rate is going to be and some decisions on the five-year Capital Plan that will be impacted by the millage rates.”

Diehl said her department worked on the next budget according to the BOCC vote in July which set the millage rate at flat over the prior year. Chairman Danny Leeper polled the commissioners to see if they were still in accord and all answered in the affirmative.

Diehl also presented a slide on an August 2020 Bloomberg Economists Survey. She highlighted that the general consensus in the survey was that there is about a 40% chance of another recession in the next 12 months. Other factors forecasted are a decline in the U.S. GDP for 2020 of 4.6% and the expectation of a 9% unemployment rate nationally at year’s end. But good news for the county was reported from the Florida Department of Revenue. Updated revenue estimates showed a total increase of $1.3 million, which came from the one-cent surtax and the half-cent sales tax revenue. That money is in the General Fund contingency account until it is allocated. Diehl said the money can remain in the contingency fund, be allocated to emergency reserves, or be allocated to the Capital Improvement Plan, reducing a $3.8 million
transfer from capital reserves. Her recommendation was to allocate it to the emergency reserves, which was unanimously approved. There were additional increases of $128,000 in the Municipal Services Fund and $134,000 in the Transportation Fund.

Diehl presented a worst-case scenario because of commitments coming up in the next three years. Those commitments include maintenance of State Road 200 with enhanced landscaping, with the amount estimated at $800,000 to $1 million; the cost for new parks (Tributary, William Burgess Park, West Side Regional Park); Fire-Rescue staffing involving nine new positions each year; staffing for the new Tributary Fire Station with an estimate of $1.8 million for additional personnel costs; and increases in fixed costs estimated at 8% annually. She also pointed commissioners to the probable negative impacts to ad valorem property tax revenue, including that real estate tends to lag the financial markets; the income approach to valuation, which is estimated to be $1 million for the large resorts and hotels; and the impact of COVID-19 on other non-residential parcels.

Diehl’s proposed solution is to reduce recurring expenditures, including frozen positions; reduce contractor costs; consolidate; and continue line item review. She suggested utilizing non-recurring revenue to address the impacts on a short-term basis consistent with generally accepted guidance and the one-cent surtax redirected from CIP projects on a temporary basis. Diehl also presented a chart of the proposed Capital Improvement Plan from FY 2020-21 through 2024-25 and spoke about replacement fire stations in contrast with new fire stations. She then asked the board for direction on how to address the CIP. The choices are to leave it the way it is and continue to review available funds or perhaps push the fire station CIP projects into future years for now and move them back in if economic conditions improve.

Commissioner Pat Edwards asked about the current state of updating fees to support Fire- Rescue and the Sheriff’s Office. Pope responded there was an update to the recreation impact fees and there was a recent update to the police, fire and admin collection fees. The mobility fee is currently in review along with the long-term transportation plan. A recommendation to do a fee assessment under the master recreation plan is coming up, Pope said.

The BOCC made a unanimous decision to leave the CIP budget as it is.

Finally, Diehl talked about having sent a letter to all of the county’s constitutional officers asking where they could make reductions in their budget. Confirmation of reductions came from the Property Appraiser’s Office, and Sheriff Bill Leeper sent a letter about non-residual savings.