By Chip Ross
Steve Nicklas writes an opinion column called “Steve’s Marketplace” for the Amelia Island Living eMagazine. The columns routinely spew a litany of complaints and recommendations concerning Fernandina Beach finances and government.
Mr. Nicklas lives on Amelia Island but not in the city of Fernandina Beach. He does not attend city commission meetings or workshops or meetings of the various city boards or advisory committees. In the last five years, I have never seen him at a public city budget meeting.
I assume he uses the city parks, beaches, roads, and parking lots. Yet he pays no taxes to the city of Fernandina Beach. He uses all these services for free, yet complains that they cost too much and that the city provides inadequate services. He bitterly complains about the city building department fees but lives outside the city limits.
In his most recent column, he advises the city to institute a hiring freeze to save money. Currently, the city is trying to hire ocean and pool lifeguards, park workers to maintain the parks, a police officer and a firefighter/EMT. No advice is offered on how to maintain these services without the workers who provide them.
He admonishes the city for funding a new fire station, a new ladder truck, the repair of the Peck Center, and opening the Alachua Street rail crossing. The current fire station is substandard, and the current ladder truck spends more time in the repair shop than in service. The state funded the repair of the historic Peck Center to prevent it from collapsing. The opening of Alachua Street has been proposed and promised for more than 20 years to improve traffic flow and walkability.
Nicklas advocates outsourcing “duplicative city services to the county” to save money. The city has five police officers on duty every night. The county has one sheriff’s deputy assigned to the entire island at night. Often that county deputy goes over the bridge to answer calls in Yulee. The city fire stations, both existing and new, are closer to Mr. Nicklas’ home than the county fire station. If Mr. Nicklas dials 911 at night, who do you think is going to respond?
He proposes a “fresh idea:” “Shrink the city’s government and its accompanying $120 million budget (it’s something astronomical like that,)” he says.
Mr. Nicklas is the “Managing Partner of Nicklas Wealth Management” and has written a book titled “All About Money.” Yet he is unable to quote the city budget amount accurately. The 2023 general fund budget was $26,066,932 – 48.9% of that money funds public safety (police, fire, EMS), 18.1% funds City Parks and Recreation (which includes caring for the beaches) and 7.3% for transportation (repair of streets and sidewalks and maintaining traffic signals and utilities for streetlights).
Despite the fact that Mr. Nicklas is able to use all those services for free, he advocates “shrinking” those services. He labels the city public safety services, parks, recreation programs and sidewalks and road maintenance a “legacy of excess.” He advocates cutting back and laying off the city workers who provide and maintain these services.
Recently Mr. Nicklas made a public records request asking seven questions about the city finances. The Florida Public Records laws require the city to respond with any document that is responsive to the request. There is no requirement to answer any questions about the financial records.
Within six working days, the city clerk’s office provided a copy of the latest Annual Comprehensive Financial Report and informed him specifically on which pages the information answering his questions was available.
If Mr. Nicklas had gone to the city website, instead of filing a public records request, he could have easily found all the documents that answered his questions in less than 30 minutes. Undeterred, Mr. Nicklas complained that it took “seven days to get a response,” the records provided were “confusing,” “long winded” and “produced by a company paid by the city.”
Mr. Nicklas advertises himself as a financial planner with “more than 28 years in the financial services industry.” Yet Mr. Nicklas finds the city audit, prepared by an independent major accounting firm, “long winded” and “confusing.”
Mr. Nicklas states, “Meanwhile the city is overrun with unnecessary assets, to the tune of $100 million in value. By the way, these don’t generate tax revenues.” No mention is made as to which assets are “unnecessary.”
The $100 million in assets include the parks, roads, beach accesses, sewer and water utilities and all the land and structures that support the city services. Mr. Nicklas is correct. These assets do not generate tax revenue. Part of the dilemma facing the city is that people like Mr. Nicklas complain about inadequate services, but pay nothing to fund them.
Finally, Mr. Nicklas opines, “Doing more with less is an enterprising approach.” Mr. Nicklas wants city workers to put in longer hours with fewer resources at the same or lower pay. This approach becomes problematic when the city cannot retain current workers or hire new workers to fill essential jobs at current pay levels.
If we want to pay lower taxes, then we need to figure out how to “cut more and do with less” instead of Mr. Nicklas’s message of “more with less.” Mr. Nicklas is silent on what services he is willing to curtail or eliminate, to decrease taxes.
Mr. Nicklas ends his most recent column by commenting on the hiring of a new city manager by stating, “How about hiring someone locally and saving that $100,000? It can be couched as an obligation to local residents.”
Since Mr. Nicklas has written multiple opinion pieces on how to competently run the city, why not consider hiring him? He lives locally, just not in the city.
If he did get the job, the City Charter would require him to live in the city. He would then help pay for the services he now uses for free. Wouldn’t that be lovely?
Mr. Ross is in his second term as a Fernandina Beach City Council member. He is a retired physician.