Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
March 18, 2022
Fernandina Beach residents and City Commissioners continue to discuss the problem of replacement playground equipment in the City’s Central Park and how it should be funded. While some Commissioners have supported using impact fees for this, Commissioner Bradley Bean appeared to be the only commissioner willing to dip into the City’s contingency reserve to cover some of the cost, estimated at $220,000.
At the March 15, 2022 Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) workshop, Commissioner Bradley Bean asked fellow Commissioners to support moving ahead immediately with replacement efforts for Central Park playground equipment that was removed earlier this year due to safety concerns. He suggested either tapping into contingency funds in the current year’s budget or using impact fees as a means to pay the $200-225K that a new set of equipment would cost to purchase and install. That amount would also cover the installation of a soft pad to eliminate serious injuries should children fall. It would also make the equipment more accessible to handicapped users.
The replacement need for the playground equipment had been identified in the City’s Capital Improvement Plan in the last few years, but was ultimately removed during the budget process as one measure to avoid raising taxes. Playground equipment had been purchased for the new Simmons Road Park, but had not been installed. The decision was made to install the unused equipment instead at Central Park, as the expense was not budgeted in Fiscal Year 2021/2022.
Bean expressed his belief that the solution to the problem lay in using Parks and Recreation impact fees to fund the project. He said, “While we can’t use impact fees for replacement in kind, we can use impact fees to purchase new equipment that has never been there before.” He added that the ADA compliant rubber mat costs about $100K, which would be a new feature of the playground. He then suggested returning the playground equipment that had been purchased for installation at Simmons Road Park to storage for future installation in the park system.
Bean said that by reprogramming the $70K impact fee money from the purchase of the Simmons Road Park equipment and supplementing it with $20K from the general fund contingency, the City could purchase and install the Huron Peak option play structure in Central Park.
He asked for Commissioner discussion.
Commissioner Chip Ross replied that this topic is a budget issue and should be addressed during budget meetings. He said he had no problem using impact fees for the rubber mat to be installed beneath the play structure. But he believed that replacing the equipment itself had to come from the general fund.
“I am adamantly opposed to taking money from the budget contingency fund to pay for this,” Ross said. “There is hardly any money in that fund now, and we have some legal fees coming up that were not budgeted. There was testimony at the Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee (PRAC) that this is a replacement [not eligible for impact fee funding]. I’d also like to point out that the City has seven parks. This is part of the problem. We have too much “stuff.” We have all these things that we are paying for, and we can’t maintain them. There aren’t too many cities in Florida with our population that have seven parks. … This is a problem nobody wants to take on because it is not politically popular.”
Ross cited problems with City owned buildings and facilities that have deteriorated to the point of needing major repair or replacement because maintenance budgets were either not prepared or not funded.
Vice Mayor Len Kreger agreed with the use of impact fees but said his problem lay with the haphazard approach to use of Central Park, which he termed the most pre-eminent of City parks. “What we need,” Kreger said, “is a good comprehensive plan.” He agreed that he would finance a plan in the upcoming budget. “Back up, get a plan on what we need to do, put it in the Capital Improvement Plan, and use impact fees where allowable. Make Central Park a tip-top park.”
Commissioner David Sturges agreed with Kreger. “I am 1,000 percent in favor of fixing that park. I believe we can do it. It is amazing to live on a beautiful island and have seven parks, boat ramps and all the facilities we have. We have $250K in the Capital Improvement Plan and additional funds in impact fees.”
Sturges said he had reached out to some of the most vocal opponents of placing the Simmons Road Park equipment in Central Park. “However, we are missing a plan,” he said. “If we go out there and just replace that one piece of equipment, we might cure it if we do it immediately or we may not. It’s time to renovate that park and make it beautiful, make it a show piece. And there is no reason we can’t do it in a timely manner. The money is not the issue; it’s the plan.”
Sturges suggested bringing in concerned parents to advise in selecting new equipment.
Bean suggested asking the City Manager, staff and PRAC to come up with a plan. He added that he is not in favor of removing the existing equipment until new equipment is ready to be installed.
Sturges cautioned about removing the Simmons Road Park playground equipment at this time. He reminded Commissioners that there is a cost to remove and store that equipment, also acknowledging that many children are playing on it today.
Sturges asked Commissioners if they were willing to take down a few trees in Simmons Road Park so that the equipment that was purchased for that park could be installed. Scott Mikelson, interim Parks and Recreation Department Director, said that one of the issues involved in halting the installation of the equipment at Simmons Road Park was the need to allow for a “fall zone.” There is an area where the equipment could be installed, but it is not large enough to provide the fall zone.
Mayor Mike Lednovich concluded the discussion with his remarks. “I get annoyed when people say we are only a city of 12,000 people. There is no park south of Simmons Road Park, so our parks serve 30,000 island residents and the 1.4M tourists who visit us. each year.” He suggested getting a new design for playground equipment placement at Simmons Road Park that would not require removing trees.
“You can use impact fees,” Lednovich declared. “If you can use these funds to replace lighting at a sports field, you can use these funds to hire a playground designer, design a brand new Central Park playground, and buy the equipment because it is a brand new park. It’s not a replacement; it’s brand new.”
Ross replied, “We can agree to disagree [about the use of impact funds].”