Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
On July 24, 2012, the Fernandina Beach City Commissioners minus Commissioner Charlie Corbett met in another workshop as they attempted to find cost savings and revenues to balance the FY2012-13 budget. City Manager Gerrity said, “My job is to present a balanced budget.” After cutting 10.5 positions and other operational costs, Gerrity suggested a FY 12/13 millage rate of 5.8592 with voter approved debt (Greenway) of 0.2724. This proposal includes raising franchise fees to 7.32%, maintaining a reserves level at 20%, and $250,000 for street resurfacing.
While the proposal calls for $35,000 to be reserved to assist local nonprofit groups, commissioners appeared to agree to put off specific designation of funds until the budget is adopted. Gerrity proposed that any additional savings that can be identified during the lead-up to budget adoption be placed in the contingency fund. With the commission’s apparent refusal to delay payment for the animal shelter, that fund, currently projected at $285,993, could drop to $35,993 if additional revenues are not identified.
Gerrity’s tentative millage rate, an increase of .41 mills, requires a 4/5ths vote of the commission for approval. The consensus of the commission seemed to be to proceed with the assumption that such a rate will be presented at the August 2, 2012 public meeting as a starting point. Should additional revenues and cuts be identified, the rate can be lowered during subsequent discussions and meetings through August and September. A budget workshop on enterprise funds has been scheduled for 5:00 p.m. on August 13.Discussion of potential revenues from beach parking will be held at the August 7 regular commission meeting. The question of instituting a storm water management fee has not been resolved.
Since Commissioner Corbett will continue on vacation for the mandated August 2 meeting, all four remaining commissioners must vote yes if the tentative millage rate is to be passed. Commissioner Sarah Pelican has been virtually silent during the budget discussions to date, indicating at the last budget discussion that she would only vote to raise taxes if by not doing so, public safety would suffer. At the last meeting, Commissioner Tim Poynter said that he was not yet convinced that expenditures had been cut enough or that revenue opportunities had been explored. While the city manager may get his 4/5ths vote at the August 2 meeting, final passage of this budget does not seem to be a sure thing at this time.
Public interest in this meeting was even greater than that at last week’s commission meeting on this topic. Jason Higginbotham, Acting Fire Chief, limited meeting attendees to the number of seats in the meeting chamber, while the overflow crowd was able to listen to piped-in audio in the hallway or watch from the street. While workshops do not always allow for public input, commissioners agreed that they wanted to hear from the public at this meeting.
Fifteen speakers took advantage of their allotted 3-minutes each to express their views or those of a community group. Nine of the speakers pleaded with commissioners to keep the city pools open year round to promote health and wellness and youth activities. By far the largest organized group at the meeting was the Fernandina Beach Sting Rays, the local swim organization, whose spokesman, Bob Christian, called the commissioners’ attention to all the bright blue team T-shirts both inside and outside the chamber.
Three speakers renewed pleas made at the last meeting to keep all the recreation centers open. Speaker Jackie McGowan said, “The MLK Center and Peck speak for tomorrow. We need all the centers.” Former City Commissioner and Vice Mayor Patricia Thompson, who spoke at the last meeting, said to the commissioners, “We hope you have reviewed, reconsidered and reevaluated and that you don’t cut so hard.”
Speaker Tom Cote Merow cautioned city commissioners that if a tax increase is needed, “expenses better be cut to the bone,” adding, “I want it demonstrated that every dollar is working for the taxpayers.” Speaker Judith Lane quoted Vice Mayor Jeffrey Bunch as having said, “Sometimes we just have to grow up.” She said that the commissioners must make hard decisions and people will have to pay their fair share.
Speaker Mary Mahoney offered to pay for a water aerobics session for each commissioner to enable them to see how beneficial that activity is. Mahoney, a retired State Department diplomat who spent significant time stationed in Africa, went on in a more serious tone to ask why Fernandina Beach is so segregated. She said that the city seems willing to put lots of money downtown, but asked, “What about helping them [the people advocating for the MLK center and Peck]? Her comments resounded with the audience.
Mayor Arlene Filkoff reminded the public that the city was going through a process of exploring ways to reduce city costs and increase revenues. She said that the city is in financial difficulty not due to mismanagement, but due to the problems that communities across the state and the nation are facing as a result of decreased property values and poor stock market performance. Locally, the drop in property values translates into less ad valorem tax revenues that must be used to provide the level of services that citizens expect. The stock market performance has led to the problem with the city’s pension funds.
In looking for places to make cuts she said that the commissioners had to consider many options, even to taking a police officer off each shift. She added that some Florida communities have even gone so far as to charging for responses to fire calls.
Once again she thanked the people in the audience for showing up, encouraging them to stay engaged all year long. She reminded them of her monthly town hall meetings and those of Commissioner Tim Poynter. She also reminded the audience that she would be at the Peck Center to listen to citizens the next day.
City manager presentation
Most of the audience remained seated as City Manager Joe Gerrity began his budget presentation 45 minutes into the meeting. Gerrity reiterated that the city’s cash reserve coming into the current fiscal year was down $438K over the budgeted amount due to lower than projected property tax revenues. Property tax values are again down 5.2% heading into Fiscal Year 2012-13, meaning that the city begins the year in a financial hole.
There are significant commitments of city revenues already on the table, including:
- $1,376,000 – McGill litigation
- $541,000 – increase in pension contribution
- Beach renourishment — $250K in both FY 12/13 and FY 13/14
Other commitments include:
- Interest and principal on the loan for the waterfront projects (paid with franchise fees, not ad valorem taxes) — $152,000
- Animal shelter – a total of $500K split between the next two fiscal years but to date not included in the preliminary budget expenditures for FY 12/13.
Following the last budget workshop, Gerrity further examined the recreation budget to find additional savings. He identified an additional savings of $28,155 by eliminating a part time position and cutting hours.
Most of the discussion related to recreation portions of the budget. Public safety got short shrift, even though the proposed budget returns police staffing to 1970’s levels. Gerrity said that the city is working on permitting fees and will get that information to the commissioners soon. Returning Fernandina Fire Chief Dan Hanes will address that department in greater detail in August.
Commissioner Tim Poynter restated a request that he had made at an earlier meeting that the city manager review all parks and recreation facilities for savings through consolidation, eliminating programs/activities and fee structures. He said that based upon a recent report it appears that all programs lose money, when the fully loaded costs are shown. He said that he was not suggesting that the city eliminate anything but added, “I wanted to get the facts out. Why do we have separate facilities and duplicate programs? What is it going to take, spending as efficiently as we can, to keep operating? What if we could save $100K by eliminating one of the 3 recreation centers?” Poynter also questioned the need for programs like scuba diving, which do not seem to fall into the category of programs of interest to the general community.
Commissioners expressed a desire to see recreation fee structures, expressing concerns that non-city residents are being charged the same as city residents. Poynter suggested that the city consider a sliding scale for recreation fees so that those who can pay more, do so. Commissioners also noted the high cost to the city of special events, suggesting that fees related to special events permits might need adjusting accordingly.
Impact on city operations
Gerrity reminded commissioners that 10 city positions will not be funded in the FY 12/13 budget and even though people may go away, the work does not. The police have given up 3 positions. Gerrity will not be filling the Project Manager position, meaning that he, Streets Manager Rex Lester and Utilities Director John Mandrick will pick up those duties on top of their regular duties. [Gerrity had previously announced that he was not filling the airport manager position and would assume those duties himself.]
Poynter said that at budget time the only thing the commission ever hears is cut people and raise taxes. He asked for some out-of-the-box thinking that would call for reallocating resources and show that the city was investing in itself. He said that even though he had been on vacation during the previous FBCC meeting, he had watched it via live streaming and after listening to all the public comment understood that “It’s all about community.”
Vice Mayor Bunch agreed that he had no taste for eliminating recreation centers and programs, that combining some of the programs would lead to overcrowding and possible fire code violations. If a center were to be closed, the city would incur the costs of bussing children from one center or the other.
If you are not part of the solution …
Poynter weighed in again, saying, “We never seem to look at doing things differently; we refuse to look at doing things better. We do exactly the same with less. But can we make things better while spending less money? At some point this city is going to look run down and property values will go down.”
Mayor Filkoff offered to personally spearhead an effort to bring leaders of local non profit groups together to see where economies could be achieved in providing community services. She said that while the city cannot do everything, the city should try to bring people together for the common good, regardless of turf or territorial issues that have put many groups in competition for scarce resources. Unofficially, representatives of some of the churches and other non profits have expressed interest in sharing facilities. She appeared to receive support for this effort from other commissioners, the city manager and the audience.
And in conclusion …
City Manager Gerrity sought buy in from all the commissioners in moving ahead with the millage rate as currently proposed. There was no polling of the commissioners, but no one expressed dissent in setting the millage at the proposed rate with the understanding that such a rate is only an upper limit. The commission directed that the $250K committed for the animal shelter in FY 12/13 be put back into the budget. With respect to his proposed tweaks for the Recreation Department budget, commissioners were not comfortable buying into those without more information on the impact of the proposed additional cuts. Vice Mayor Bunch asked if the budget assumes that both pools will remain open. He said that what he heard from the community was “leave them open and we will pay for them.”
Gerrity jumped in to this discussion to state that he was the person who put out for discussion the idea of closing both pools. This was not an idea proposed by Commissioner Poynter. Mayor Filkoff also stressed that many ideas are being considered at this time, but that does not mean they will be adopted. She encouraged citizens to bring their concerns to commissioners and the city manager over the weeks ahead.
July 26, 2012 7:39 a.m.