February 14, 2022
This statement is written in response to recent media releases related to American Beach in Nassau County, Florida.
Nassau County and the American Beach community have been collaboratively pursuing installation of public water and sewer infrastructure in the historic community for several years. We encourage interested parties to watch the February 10, 2022 meeting of the American Beach Water & Sewer Advisory Board, where long-time residents of American Beach shared their accounts of the efforts that have being ongoing for many years, as well as their appreciation to the Board of County Commissioners for its partnership with the American Beach property owners. The meeting can be located on the Clerk of Courts official website: https://www.nassauclerk.com/watch-meetings.
Bringing strong, dedicated attention and action to a community infrastructure priority after decades of floundering and inaction. Water and sewer infrastructure has been a high community interest for decades. At the Advisory Board meeting on February 10, 2022, longtime residents the Honorable Judge Henry Adams and Reverend Carlton Jones provided an excellent chronology of the long “journey”, going back to the 1990’s, to get this public health and safety infrastructure to American Beach. The obstacle was largely funding.
The Honorable Judge Henry Adams addressed the American Beach Advisory Board at their February 10, 2022 meeting. His Honor provided a perspective and context for the Advisory Board to consider. “Sometime in 2010… the President of the property owner’s association appointed an infrastructure committee. The purpose of the infrastructure committee was to meet with the County and discuss getting water and sewage finally on American Beach … we met with the County and indicated at that point in time that we were aware that assessments would be done so that the residents or property owners would pay for the water and sewage and we made it clear that we understood that.” His Honor further addressed recent media publications stating, “I read the article, and got the impression that it was being suggested that the County kind of just dumped this assessment on the property owners. That’s not the case…we knew that.”
In response to renewed priorities and appeals from the community, county leaders, in collaboration with the American Beach community and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), formulated a financing plan which would bring maximum external State funding to the project thus reducing local cost. The financing plan centered on a common water and sewer funding source used across the country – the State Revolving Loan Fund or SRF. This program provides low or no interest State capital financing to qualifying projects. A most beneficial element of this program are loans with “Principal Forgiveness” which essentially makes a portion of the loans a grant with no repayment requirement. These loans prioritize small, disadvantaged communities with population below the State median income and less than 10,000 residents. Working with the State, an income survey was performed, and county leaders worked with the American Beach community to establish a special district. The establishment of the special district allowed American Beach to qualify for the SRF Principal Forgiveness program. The community supported creation of the special district. SRF funding is very competitive among statewide utilities and requires a local “pledged revenue” to repay the non-forgivable portion of the loan. A local property special assessment – another frequently used tool discussed with the community previously – was used as the local pledge.
Extensive public outreach. Before proceeding, the county took its facility and financing plan to the whole community – literally – in meetings under a tent at Burney Park. Multiple open forums were held where residents could be fully informed and get their questions answered. This included estimates of project costs and what a local special assessment requirement may be to leverage the State funds. After much communication, the vast majority of participating residents expressed support for the plan. Enthusiasm was growing that something was finally happening to install long desired public water and sewer infrastructure. The American Beach Property Owners Association and Friends of American Beach supported and advocated for the financing plan through targeted mailings (attached are promotional materials).
In addition, at the February 10, 2022 American Beach Advisory Board meeting, Berta Arias, representing the American Beach Property Owner’s Association stated that, “…As trustee of the American Beach Property Owner’s Association … I have contacted 12 of the 13 board of trustee members and 12 of the 13 are in full support of what was voted on Monday. We are definitely in support of the resolution approved by the Commissioners… we do appreciate the work that has been done and continues to be done for all of us and in collaboration and we expect this to go forward”.
Reverend Carlton Jones also provided comments to the Advisory Board and noted “I applaud the County for being partners, we had no money, we voted a few years ago that we would be assessed…the County and the residents for 20 some years have been partners”.
At the February 10, 2022 American Beach Advisory Board Meeting, American Beach resident, Pamela Buncum, acknowledged that the community had been aware that an assessment was supported, but noted “the only reason why a lot of the property owners had questions initially was after the assessments were rolled out the structure of those assessment to repay was not clear. Yes, we were aware and we want water and sewer for the community but why should we be unfair in bringing water and sewer to the community…no one should be burdened to the point that they have to sell property or get property taken away…”
According to Assistant County Manager, Marshall Eyerman, part of the Board’s actions on Monday night [2/7/22] with the legislative appropriation of $600,000, $50,000 of that is set aside to support economically disadvantaged households within the American Beach community pay the temporary assessment during the construction phase of the project. The County program will provide assistance to qualifying economically disadvantaged households to ensure the no one loses their home and that no qualifying household is inordinately burdened. Like many communities, there is a large discrepancy in household earnings within American Beach. Individuals are encouraged to reach out to the County Manager’s Office for assistance.
Additionally, with the Board of County Commissioner’s action on Monday February 7, 2022 to pledge $1.85 million of legally available non ad valorem funds, the individual assessments will be eliminated by Dec. 2023 and the property owners would be made whole. This action of the BOCC exemplifies the collaborative spirt between the American Beach Community, the Board of County Commissioners, state officials, and contract consultants.
Near the end of the meeting, Tony Nelson provided some final comments to the record noting, “First I want to take the opportunity to thank the staff and all who have been involved to getting us this close to water and sewer, it has been a long journey…we at American Beach, and I serve as a member of the [Property Owner Association] Board, are very much in support of water and sewer as indicated by your [Advisory Board] member Tony Brown has already indicated based on our survey and we still are in support…”
The first SRF funds awarded. The project couldn’t even be considered for construction funding without a facility plan and project design for the new water and sewer infrastructure. This plan required public participation to obtain feedback. Again, the public affirmed support for the plan. In late 2020, the State approved this plan and the county applied for and received its first SRF funding for this design work with principal forgiveness of 50% for water and 80% for sewer.
Verify public support. Before proceeding further with the plan’s locally required funding source for non-forgivable loan repayment, in May-June of 2021 a straw ballot question was put before all American Beach property owners to gauge support. The public opinion was clear and supported by the American Beach Property Owners Association. With a 64% response rate, 86% of owners voting supported the special assessment at the estimated levels to make the project happen. Public notices were mailed with further information and following the required public hearing, the assessments were adopted [material attached].
Secure construction funds. The county was advised to submit its construction funding applications in time for an August 2021 funding cycle determination since statewide competition for these limited funds was in demand at record levels with availability in future cycles questionable. The county submitted its designs and permits for a “shovel ready” project. It was highly ranked and was awarded construction funds at the estimated loan forgiveness levels contained in the funding plan. This strategy turned out to be the correct one since funding is now fully obligated to other statewide priority projects.
More positive funding developments. In further support of the project, the State Dept of Environmental Protection (FDEP) had applied to the US EPA for federal drinking water grant funds. Under the Water Infrastructure Investment for the Nation (WIIN) program, FDEP was awarded for regranting to the American Beach District $2.3 million to help build the new water system. Additionally, upon receiving the State SRF construction loan documents, the state advised that there would be zero interest on the non-forgivable portion of the construction loans.
Further relief to property owners. The net effect of the WIIN federal funds and zero interest loans reduces the initial estimated property assessment rates substantially. Before final rates can be computed, however, the county needs to get construction bids from contractors to know what the actual construction costs will be. These are due in a few weeks. At that point, we will be able to start calculating assessment credits to property owners. In addition to the loans/grants received, the Board of County Commissioners pledged $1.85m to the project, to which American Beach Advisory Board member Tony Brown praised stating, “Your vote tonight is a monumental moment for American Beach…making water and sewer available to the property owners at no cost.”
What about American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds? It is a legitimate funding policy debate as to where the new federal infrastructure funding should be dedicated. Nassau County is poised to receive up to $17.2 million to support over 93,012 residents (75,305 in unincorporated areas) spread across 726 square miles. The allocation of those funds must be considered across the whole of the County. There are alternatives to using ARPA funds on the American Beach Water and Sewer project and the Board of County Commissioners unanimously committed via formal Resolution to provide American Beach relief from future assessments. However, the ARPA legislation and final rules were enacted after the project funding plan was adopted and the SRF loan process had begun, and the assessment revenue pledge needed to be in place. It was essential to capture the State SRF dollars before they were exhausted and ARPA was not an option at the time.
In summary this project would not have advanced to where it stands today ready for construction with 90% external grant funding had the County Commission, staff and the American Beach Community worked quickly, transparently, and closely to navigate a complex project. After decades of waiting, the new water and sewer infrastructure American Beach has been requesting is finally ready to become a reality. As the Honorable Judge Adams stated, “we have come in the last five years closer to getting water and sewer on American Beach than ever before.”