City questions fees, recreation programs, for non-residents

Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
November 7, 2019

Most Fernandina Beach City Commissions (FBCC) over the years have expressed their frustration over the default role the City finds itself in with respect to providing parks and recreational programs for all residents of Amelia Island, regardless of whether the participants pay city taxes.  Residents of the non-city, southern portion of Amelia Island have no County recreational facilities or programs.  With the growth in Nassau County population on the mainland, City frustrations have continued to mount as residents of the mainland also take advantage of City programs and facilities.  Although the City adds a 25 percent surcharge for non-city participants in fee-based programs, that added revenue does not appreciably offset the City’s costs to maintain parks and facilities or pay staff.

The FBCC’s unhappiness with the status quo surfaced once again on November 5, 2019 as commissioners considered Ordinance 2019-24 on First Reading that would adjust fees for the Building Department and the Parks and Recreation Department.

Commissioner Chip Ross announced that although the City of Fernandina Beach accounts for only 1.5 percent of Nassau County’s land mass and 15 percent of the County population, it pays 26 percent of the County ad valorem taxes.  City residents pay more than $16M in taxes.  He cited a 2012 study conducted by Dave Lott that cited the problems in establishing a fair fee structure for both city and non-city residents that would not adversely impact the number of participants necessary for some programs to continue operating.

Ross asked if an analysis has been done to establish the true cost of recreational programs, whether city residents are being denied access due to over enrollment of non-city residents, and what the consequence would be if fees were doubled for non-city participants.

Vice Mayor Len Kreger said that City recreation programs generate $900K in revenue each year.  He supported Ross’ request for information.

Ross indicated that when he reads emails or blogs with complaints about City services, he looks to see where the writer lives.  “If it is in the City, I’m with you 100 percent.  If it is in the County, I’m sorry but you do not pay City taxes.”

“The City is providing a whole lot of services to non-city residents of the County, and we are not getting a lot in return,” Ross said, adding that he would approve the Ordinance on First Reading, but that he wanted more information before final adoption.  He moved and Kreger seconded approval with the condition that information be provided on the consequence of increasing the recreational fees significantly for  non-city residents.

Commissioner Mike Lednovich also asked for data showing use of city facilities and recreational programs broken down by City and non-city participants.

Mayor John Miller called the issue a case of “deja vu all over again.”  He said that following a recent conversation with Nan Voit, Parks and Recreation Department Director, he understood how certain fees were derived.  “We are not in this to make money,” he said, “but to provide services and break even.”  He said that in answer to the question of what advantages City residents have over non-city residents, it is hard to tout the City’s rapid response to safety and police emergencies, because through interlocal agreements, the City also responds to calls in the County.  He suggested that the City should consider making the pools and the gyms free for City residents.

Ross added that combined City and non-city residents of Amelia Island pay 58 percent of the County ad valorem tax, making it “the County’s piggy bank.”  

“[Island residents] do not get the consummate services that we should be getting from the County,” he said.

In response to a question from Miller on what services the County could offer to the City, Ross replied, “Hard, cold cash.”  Audience members applauded.

Miller said that while the City might ask, he doubted the County would comply.

“We keep subsidizing County residents, and we need to figure out ways to get around that,” Ross said.  “I find it troublesome that City residents are being bumped from programs by County residents, yet the City is paying the freight.”

City Attorney Tammi Bach said that various programs open up a week early for City resident enrollment.  After the initial week, all enrollees are taken on a first come basis, regardless of residency.

Kreger expressed his opinion that all City programs for children should be free for City residents.  “I don’t know that we can do that,” he said, “but we have waived fees for kids in some instances.”

Commissioner Phil Chapman said, “We live on an island.  EVERY child should be given swimming lessons.  Every kid on this island should know how to swim, and we should do whatever it takes to make sure that opportunity is there.”

Miller said that today any child who is on the free lunch program is entitled to free swimming lessons.  He has offered to provide lessons for free, if people cannot afford them, and extended that offer to the audience.

Miller suggested that the way to get the County to pay its fair share is to charge non-city residents to park at the beach.  This idea set off a series of laughs and eye rolls from commissioners and audience members alike, who have grappled with this issue unsuccessfully over the past year.  After a brief recap of the problems that would cause for federal funding, discussion on that idea was dropped until such time as the City gets a written opinion from the Army Corps of Engineers.

Lednovich requested a point of order, since paid beach parking was not on the agenda.  

The vote on First Reading for the fee Ordinance passed unanimously.

Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.

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