Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
February 17, 2022
There were times during the February 15, 2022 Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) discussion of playground equipment when listeners might have admonished Commissioners to play nice. On a 3-2 vote, Commissioners declined to support Resolution 2022-35, which would have encumbered $100,000 of the City’s $123,641 General Fund Contingency account to purchase additional playground equipment for Central Park. Only two Commissioners — Bradley Bean and Mayor Mike Lednovich — believed that the situation was dire enough to justify dipping into the City’s emergency reserve.
All Commissioners agreed with the need to place new equipment and protection on the Central Park playground. They indicated a willingness to do so as part of the budgeting process for the next fiscal year, which begins October 1.
Commissioner Chip Ross reminded Commissioners that one-for-one replacement of the 20-year old Central Park playground equipment had been identified in the City’s Capital Improvement Plan in the past few years. However, Commissioners had cut the project during the annual budget process. Early this year, the existing equipment reached the end of its useful life and had to be removed due to safety concerns. A decision was made to replace the unsafe equipment with playground equipment that had been purchased for the new Simmons Road Park. That equipment had been placed in storage when it was determined that it did not fit in the new park.
Several families have voiced dissatisfaction with the new playground equipment as well as the decision to place wood chips beneath it as opposed to a more expensive rubberized matting. To remove the recently added equipment and replace it with a structure that more resembled the original equipment was estimated to cost $73,000 to $96,922, an amount not provided for in the City’s Budget.
The City Commission, at their January 26, 2022, Goal-Setting Workshop, had discussed public concerns over the new playground equipment recently installed in Central Park. Mayor Lednovich asked that staff prepare a resolution to provide for additional equipment using the Contingency account as the funding source. That item — in the form of Resolution 2022-35 — came before the FBCC for approval on February 15. Commissioner Bradley Bean moved to approve the Resolution. When it appeared that no other Commissioner was prepared to second the motion, Mayor Mike Lednovich stepped down to do so, handing the gavel to Vice Mayor Len Kreger.
While all Commissioners supported the need for new equipment, three of the Commissioners could not support the purchase as an emergency. Commissioner Bradley Bean who argued passionately for immediate replacement said, “Kids have a playground shelf life.”
Other Commissioners argued that it would be preferable to fund the equipment as part of the Capital Improvement Plan this year, while acknowledging that this would add months to the replacement schedule. They called for a plan identifying with specificity which equipment and other elements (padding) needed to be purchased as well as the cost.
Lednovich reported that 12-14 sets of parents attended the Parks and Recreation Committee (PARC) meeting during which the playground equipment was discussed. He said they all expressed the need to replace the equipment as soon as possible. “Without this equipment, Central Park is not Central Park,” he said.
Commissioner David Sturges said that while he agreed with the Mayor on the need, he had a problem dipping into the City’s Contingency fund, which has already dropped from $400K to roughly $125K. Since the item will be back in the FY2022/23 Budget at a cost of $250K, he believed it would be better for the City and its children to wait. With supply chain problems, he indicated that there was no guarantee that a purchase on an emergency basis would arrive in a timely manner. “I just want to plan perfectly this time when we go to install equipment,” he said, “Instead of spending $100K now, I’d rather spend $200-250K on a really nice plan with both the right equipment and a really soft surface, even if this would push the purchase back 6-8 months.”
Commissioner Chip Ross said that he is routinely described as a “tax and spend liberal” on a local blog. He said that the new playground equipment had been identified as a need over the past 3 years, so it could not be considered an emergency. Commission action to cut the budget had removed it. “We have 3 other sets of playground equipment within a mile and a half of Central Park,” he said. “I prefer that we put this in the budget for next year and that we fund the budget, not at the rollback rate but at the current millage rate.”
Bean said, “The people of Fernandina Beach deserve action, and they deserve action tonight. That’s why I have a plan.” The “Bean Plan” called for accounting changes that would move money between funds and thereby add money to the Contingency Fund.
“Gentlemen, I ask you: if this isn’t an emergency, what is? It’s our playground!” Bean exclaimed, accusing the FBCC of paralysis by analysis.
Lednovich said that the PARC voted 7-0 to move ahead now. He added that the park equipment that had been ordered 2 years ago for the Simmons Road Park will not fit there.
Sturges explained, “The reason that the equipment ordered for the Simmons Road Park doesn’t fit there is the outcry from the conservationists about removing trees. You can go out there and remove some trees, then the equipment will fit in the park.”
Ross said, “Over the past few years I’ve heard Commissioners say, ‘We have to run [the City] like a business; we have to live within our means, and we have to be fiscally prudent. This is what our City has not done for 20 years, and that’s why our City is falling apart. Because we do things like this. I feel for those children, but the next group will come in [with an equally compelling need]. Nobody has told me how we are going to pay for all those things. We have the rules, and you are trying some fancy way to get around them. This is not an emergency, and I cannot support it.”
Bean continued to advocate his plan for switching funding between impact fees and the General Fund.
Vice Mayor Len Kreger said he would not support funding this equipment without a plan, urging that it be included in the Capital Improvement Plan for the next fiscal year.
Talks heat up
Lednovich said that other Commissioners were missing the point that approval of this recommendation had been supported by all seven members of the PARC. “The message that you are sending to advisory boards is ‘We don’t care what you recommend. You can spend all this time deliberating, but you know what? We’re going to do what we’re going to do. It’s the history of Commissions not following committee recommendations.”
Ross immediately responded. “Yes, it was 7-0 on the PARC committee. But I can tell you that you had your thumb on the scale. You were there advocating for your position. It’s not like out of the blue they decided to do that. I’ve had conversations with people [other than my wife] who serve on that committee, and they felt bullied. … I don’t think it was a clean 7-0 vote.”
Lednovich disagreed. “I felt I clearly presented two options,” he said. “I started my presentation by saying ‘I’m here to get your advice.’ Those are not the words of a bully.”
Sturges said, “I want to be clear. I support new playground equipment, but not what is being proposed tonight. I want to see a plan covering all elements and costs, not to be handed drawings just before the meeting begins.”
Bean again called for immediate action and decried what he characterized as personal attacks by Commissioners against other Commissioners.
The motion to approve immediate purchase of new equipment with Contingency Funds failed on a 3-2 vote.
I support Bean and Lednovich on this one. First of all the City should not have torn down the existing equipment without already having the new replacement equipment in place and ready to install. Who dropped the ball on that? If the supply chain is indeed an issue then get the stuff ordered now instead of waiting till later when it will be delayed even more. Sometimes fiscal conservatism just doesn’t make sense when we’re really just talking about timing and “shuffling” money from one part of the budget to the other because of the “point of it”. Kids are only kids for so long. It’s a minor issue that never should have been a point of contention in the first place. Just another issue putting City politics in a bad light. Be smart, put the decent replacement play equipment in now rather than later!
As a member of PRAC, I supported replacing the Central Park play structure. Our motion to approve, however, did not specify the funding source or the timing of the replacement. While I supported replacement I didn’t see it as an emergency since the City has four other nearby playgrounds with play equipment that is as good or better than Central Park was: Main Beach, behind the Atlantic Ave. Rec. Center, MLK Center on Elm St., and Egans Creek Park on Atlantic Ave. Three of these have soft surfacing. Three have canopies or trees for shade. All have excellent play structures, restrooms nearby, and ample parking. With these options, the “shelf life of children” shouldn’t be an issue. If your child wants a place to play and climb, other really good playgrounds are available not far away.
Why not use some of the hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising of our area? The hotel bed tax and tourism budget has become ginormous. Those funds should be used to improve the items that the tourists are using i.e. the playgrounds, beaches, and trail systems. If we are advertising such prestigious items and family friendly tourist hot spot, help pay to upkeep it. These resources are not just used by city residents. What parent driving down Atlantic who saw a bright open playground wouldn’t want to stop and let their children play? I’ve met hundreds of people from all over the world enjoying what was a Central Park. It is a part of the city’s tourism. Stop spending millions to sell the dream vacation and invest back into the resources used.