By Mike Lednovich
Fernandina Beach city commissioners have a vision for a $25 million bond referendum for voters to approve as early as the August primary election to pay for the construction of the remaining river flood protection wall and historic downtown improvements.
Also included in the $25.1 million general obligation bond package is $1.2 million to demolish the Brett’s Waterway Cafe building, $4 million for a Brett’s replacement structure and $1.2 million for marina improvements.
“This (bond) is a goal that this commission has been working on for some time. I’m very proud of the work this commission has already gotten done in terms of our waterfront revitalization,” said Mayor Bradley Bean. “A bond is the next logical step.”
Bean went on to say that once the Brett’s restaurant building is demolished, it should be replaced with a structure that is open to the public and not available on a long-term lease. “I would like (city) staff to get this ready for the August election,” he said.
Vice Mayor David Sturges joined Bean in advocating for passage of a bond.
“We’ve been talking about the waterfront, the seawall, Brett’s, as well as the downtown revitalization, so I believe it’s the right thing to do. We should move ahead,” he said.
Bond experts said a $25 million bond would increase the city’s millage rate by .54 mils over 20 years of the bond. That means a property valued by the county at $365,000 would incur a tax increase of $160 the first year.
While there was consensus for the bond among commissioners at their visioning session Tuesday, there were also more questions than answers provided about critical details of the projects.
First were the estimated costs to complete the projects.
“I’m highly skeptical of these numbers,” said Commissioner Chip Ross. “I think these numbers are grossly underestimating what all this is going to cost. Until you go out for construction costs, you have no idea (of the actual costs).”
Ross said he has seen construction cost estimates “go up and down over the past four years.” He said the city has in the past put projects out to bid and the costs far exceeded the estimates that were budgeted.
Before discussing the proposed bond, the commission heard from public finance consultant Mark Galvin of Hilltop Securities.
He told them that bond referendums required voters knowing the exact details of how the money was going to be used by the city.
“You have to define the project,” Galvin said. “You don’t want the project to be underfunded.”
Ross said there is also a crucial flaw in the floodwall plan.
“Part of the problem with the downtown seawall is there happens to be a hole in the middle of the seawall that isn’t being very well addressed. So going out to the public with a bond with a hole in the middle of the seawall, I don’t think, is a particularly good idea.”
Ross was referencing the parcel that is adjacent to the city parking lot next to Brett’s Waterway Cafe, which O’Steen Company LLP owns. The city has been unsuccessful in attempts to acquire the property or obtain a right-of-way in order to include that section in the riverfront protection plan. That means there’s a 95-foot wide opening for floodwaters to flow into downtown.
The city also doesn’t own riverfront property north to the Port of Fernandina and just south of the parking lot. No flood protection wall would exist in those areas as well. Experts said floodwaters would overwhelm those properties where no floodwall exists.
“I’m astounded, this is crazy. You don’t have anything, you’re wasting your time to build this,” Dr. Frank Hopf, a coastal flood and dune expert, said last December. “This (current) plan would slow floodwaters in some areas but speed up flooding in the gap areas. It’s the wind tunnel effect of the same amount of water pouring through a smaller space. The water is accelerated by about double.”
Whether the city commission can have the bond referendum ready for the August election is also in doubt. City staff said the exact language for the general obligation bond language to be on the ballot would have to be submitted to the Supervisor of Elections by mid-May.
Interim City Manager Charlie George said more exact cost estimates would be derived once construction plans for the flood wall and the downtown renovation are completed. He said the city expects plans to be done for the flood wall in two weeks and plans for downtown in 90 days. Ross said city staff would be hard-pressed to meet that May deadline and would push a bond vote to January 2025.
Commissioners also did not address the voters’ appetite for yet another bond obligation to be added to their property taxes.
The city’s bond referendum would come on the heels of two voter-approved bonds passed in 2022. Nassau County passed a $30 million bond to purchase land to place into conservation, and the Nassau County School District passed a bond aimed at increasing teachers’ salaries. The School District bond raised school taxes this year by 40-50%.
Former Vice Mayor Len Kreger was the lone public speaker and cautioned that having a bond focused just on the “downtown” is a mistake.
Kreger said voters want to support bond referendums that impact where they live. “Not everybody lives downtown. If you’re going to move about resiliency, don’t forget about the rest of the city. Egan’s Creek (at Atlantic) floods, the Escambia slough floods over Eighth Street. Where people live is just as critical, if not more so,” he said.