Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
July 8, 2021
On a 4-1 vote, with Commissioner Chip Ross dissenting, the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) approved Resolution 2021-95 at their July 6, 2021 Regular Meeting.
In so doing, the City accepted the maintenance responsibility and repairs of the Seaside subdivision boardwalk located in the unimproved portion of the Jean LaFitte Boulevard, north of Atlantic View Drive (approximately 400 linear feet). The City acknowledged boardwalk repairs, in the amount of $70,000, are necessary in order to extend the boardwalk’s useful life.
The City Commission accepted such responsibility and commitment for the next five years. After five years, the City reserves the right to close and/or remove the boardwalk without replacement.
Commissioner Ross’ opposition was solely on financial grounds. There are no funds budgeted for this project in the current City Budget.
The City believes that the Seaside subdivision developer, during subdivision expansion, constructed an elevated boardwalk located in the unimproved portion of Jean LaFitte Boulevard, north of Atlantic View Drive, for homeowner and public use and enjoyment. However, the Seaside Home Owners Association has no funds to effect repairs to a walkway that is used by many other residents on a regular basis. There have also been claims that the walkway was originally constructed in lieu of a road in order to preserve trees.
City Manager Dale Martin reported that the City went out on bid for this project and received two: one for $99,000 and one for $169,000. Martin said that since there are no funds in the current budget for this project, the FBCC will have to approve funding in the new budget which will cover FY 2021-2022.
Vice Mayor Len Kreger questioned why the 5-year time limit was placed in the Resolution. City Attorney Tammi Bach said that five years was a reasonable time limit in looking at the life of the wooden walkway. After 5 years, it might need to be replaced, based on the City Engineer’s evaluation.
City Commissioner Chip Ross read from an email received from a Seaside resident, agreeing with most of the points the writer raised on the value of the walkway to the community as a whole. But he pointed out to other Commissioners, “City Commissioners over the last 10-15 years have done a poor job of funding and repairing our beach walkovers. Asking to treat this [Seaside] walkway as a beach walkover is probably not a good idea.”
Ross said that money to fund the Seaside will have to come from next year’s Parks budget next year, which also includes the City’s recreation centers, sports fields, beach walkovers, playground equipment, etc. “Currently those funds are underfunded, overextended and not keeping up with needed maintenance and replacements,” he said.
Ross reminded commissioners that the City had paid $50,000 to the Stantec Company to provide a report on how the City could become financially sustainable. He quoted from the report that at the then City millage rate (5.8553), the City would be financially stable through 2029.
“The take home message was that if the millage rate was maintained at 5.8553 and costs could be maintained, the Budget was sustainable. Great news. Subsequently, by a vote of 3-2 City Commissioners ignored the advice of the consultant, lowered the millalge rate and increased maintenance costs by adding a new park and new beach walkovers. So basically the City Commission decreased revenue and increased expenses. Currently, at least two commissioners want to reduce the millage rate again, despite the advice of the consultant on how to maintain a sustainable budget.
“And here we are tonight with another proposal to increase mainntenance costs without any proposal to provide the necessary revenue to cover the cost. To assume the liability for this walkway without providing a funding source in the budget or removing something else is not sustainable. It is fiscally irresponsiible. I will not support this unless the FBCC can come up with an answer as to how they propose to fund it. Although I think it is a great idea.”
Commissioner Bradley Bean said he would support the Resolution because he believed it was a valid use of taxpayer dollars. “This is a boardwalk that must stay in existence,” he said. “I am opposed to tax increases; I will not support tax increases. We can do both. We can budget appropriately so that we can fund this boardwalk without increasing taxes.”
Mayor Mike Lednovich said he respected everything Ross had said. “You are right,” he said. “The task before this body is that we are going to have to figure this out.” He cited the 30-40 emails commissioners had received from those who use the Seaside boardwalk. He said, “The problem is this. The first time the City used a hammer and a nail on that boardwalk, it took ownership of that boardwalk. Shame on us for being the good guys. But now this boardwalk is ours. If we don’t vote to repair it, we are in fact agreeing to let it be demolished, because you have just heard that the home owners association does not have the funds to fix it. Either we have a walkway that is a benefit to our citizens, or we condemn it to demolition. I’m not willing to condemn it.”
Ross countered. “I agree with Commissioner Bean. It’s a great project. But we can’t keep taking on new responsibilities and not figure out how to bring in new revenue. We want to cut fees. We want to cut taxes. I get that. All I’m saying is we cannot continue to keep the tax rate flat and fund new projects. Just saying you are going to be more efficient is baloney. We cannot continue on our course of adding new projects, new ideas, without adding new funding. We spent $50,000 to get that message, and we have totally ignored it.”
Kreger said that the FBCC has not seen the new budget or the capital improvement list. “There is going to be sticker shock,” he said. “We are in trouble because we cut capital improvements over the years…. This particular walkover was built where there should have been a road in order to save the environment. We’ll come up with the money somewhere. We haven’t even set the millage rate. You [Ross] are making some assumptions.”
Lednovich said, “I believe we are heading for a bond vote to fund many of the infrastructure improvements and new facilities. I’ve placed that topic on our next workshop agenda.