Should the City partner with Nassau County on a conservation referendum?

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

Commissioner Mike Lednovich

During the November 5, 2019 Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) Regular Meeting, Commissioner Mike Lednovich relayed to his fellow commissioners a recent conversation initiated by County Commissioner (District 2) Aaron Bell, who called into question the wisdom of adding a referendum to the November 2020 General Election ballot seeking voter approval to raise city taxes to support ongoing purchases of conservation land.  Bell had noted that the Board of County Commissioners has already scheduled a vote for December 9 to place two additional proposals to increase taxes on the ballot:  one to support County conservation efforts and one for the School District.

Lednovich said, “If I saw a ballot with three proposed tax increases on it, guess what I’m going to do:  vote no, no, no.”

Bell had asked if there were a possibility that the City and the County could partner on one conservation tax increase with an agreed upon formula to distribute the revenues between the parties.  Such an agreement would result in just two tax referenda being placed before the voters.  Lednovich said that he had spoken separately with County Commissioner (District 1) Danny Leeper, who also thought this would be a good idea.

Lednovich said that he was bringing the matter to the FBCC for discussion to see if they shared the same concerns over three tax questions on the 2020 ballot and if so, “how do we skin this cat.”

Commissioner Chip Ross

Commissioner Chip Ross said it was a big concern.  He expressed displeasure that the BOCC diid not approach the FBCC about this issue initially, since they knew the City was planning a ballot initiative to approve additional taxes to purchase conservation lands.  He said there has been no discussion of how the pie would be sliced, asking whether because the City accounts for 14 percent of the County’s population, would that mean that the City would collect 14 percent of the taxes raised under the County’s proposal.  He asked that City Manager Dale Martin meet with County Manager Mike Mullin to “find out what the deal is.”

“I also don’t have great confidence in the County,” Ross continued, “because last October the City made a proposal via the [Tourist Development Council – TDC] to issue an RFP to provide for beach cleaning, and that RFP still hasn’t gone out a year later.”

Vice Mayor Len Kreger

Vice Mayor Len Kreger expressed his concerns, but noted that the FBCC did know the issue was coming, following an earlier presentation by Adrienne Burke, County Planning Manager, on the County’s plans to address conservation needs.  Kreger said he thought it would be a stretch to ask voters to approve 3 tax referenda during a national election year.  He noted that the County currently has only 7 percent of its land in conservation or recreation, while the City has 42 percent (including Fort Clinch).  He suggested that the FBCC ask the City Manager to get more information from the County.  He also recommended waiting until the County votes on their referendum questions on December 9.

Mayor John Miller

Mayor John Miller said that he was unaware of any pressure from people in mainland Nassau County to acquire lands for conservation or recreation.  He said the only County residents who appear concerned about this live on the south end of Amelia Island.  “I think it might be a hard sell,” he said.  “I would hate to make our local conservation efforts dependent on a county wide vote.”

Kreger said that the big push for the County referendum was coming from County planning staff to address growth concerns.

City Attorney Tammi Bach

City Attorney Tammi Bach said that she and the City Manager would be meeting the next day with their County counterparts to discuss joint planning efforts.  She said that the City Manager’s strategy has been to finance land purchases with a bond because undeveloped land in the city is quickly disappearing.  A loan would enable the city to purchase lands now at current prices before they fall into developers’ plans.  The City’s proposed referendum would allow the use of taxpayer funds for debt service on such loans.

Because the County is also seeking a bond, Bach said that the City and County cannot combine their efforts.  To do so would violate state law covering General Obligation Bonds.

She explained all the steps required to issue a General Obligation Bond and expressed doubt that the work could be completed in time to appear on the November 2020 ballot.  Such a measure generally takes 18-24 months to implement.  Bach advised against putting such a question on a general election ballot, suggesting that a Special Election might be a better choice.  She also raised the possibility of creating another MSTU to pay for conservation.

Kreger reminded Commissioners that they had already informed the public that they would go to referendum on purchasing additional conservation land.  “The County could fail and we could pass,” Kreger said.  “You really don’t know what will happen.”

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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