Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
The philosophical divide between members of the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) came into clear focus at the FBCC Budget Workshop held on August 12, 2013. While Commissioners Ed Boner and Arlene Filkoff argued to continue funding grant requests received from local non-profit agencies at some level, the remaining three commissioners—Mayor Sarah Pelican, Vice Mayor Charlie Corbett and Pat Gass—opposed such city funding. The result is no city support for the following non-profits that had applied for assistance: Council on Aging, Episcopal Children’s Services, Nassau Mental Health (Starting Point), Micah’s Place and the Barnabas Center. The only non-profit to succeed in obtaining partial grant funding was the Amelia Island Museum of History. While Keep Nassau Beautiful received $1,000 from the city, that funding was not considered for purposes of Monday’s decision-making. Commissioners also agreed to continue budgeting $25,000 to cover sewer exemptions.
Although the city had preliminarily budgeted $35,000 for funding local non-profits, the majority of the FBCC overruled pleas from both Commissioners Ed Boner and Arlene Filkoff and returned $25,000 to the General Fund Reserve.
Commissioner Ed Boner, referring to the previous workshop where this topic was discussed, said that he believed that cutting off funding to non-profits was a very bad idea. Commissioner Arlene Filkoff quickly agreed, saying that if it is just a question of saving money, the commissioners could give up their salaries and save almost twice as much.
Commissioner Pat Gass agreed, “Non-profits are wonderful and need to be contributed to.” She said, “Sitting here [in the audience] are 42 highly intelligent individuals that can make good decisions on where their money should go. They don’t need us to rank [the non-profits] … they can give direct to whomever they like, as much as they like. To take it out of tax dollars is like saying, ‘you people aren’t smart enough to make this decision.’”
Boner continued his advocacy for the grants saying that when the city provides financial support to organizations, there is a multiplier effect. In many cases, he said, organizations receiving city support use these funds to qualify for matching grants. Vice Mayor Corbett asked Boner to provide specifics, which he could not. Boner looked to help from the audience, asking if anyone was present from the Council on Aging or Episcopal Children’s Services or any other organization that used city funds as a match. No one from the audience stepped forward. “I don’t think people realize,” he emphasized, “how much our contribution is multiplied when it is used toward grants.”
In response to a question from Commissioner Gass, City Manager Gerrity said that the figure of $35,000 total allocated for non-profits was carried over from the current budget. The process by which each commissioner allocates the money among the various non-profits requesting assistance has been used over the past few years. Based upon individual commissioner allocations, the amounts have been averaged for distribution to the non-profits. This year, only Commissioners Boner and Filkoff had specified any distributions. The remaining commissioners declined to fill in the ranking form.
Since Corbett had not attended the previous workshop and had not completed the ranking form, Mayor Pelican asked him for his rankings. “You’re looking at it,” he replied, indicating no distribution to non-profits. “The only one I’d be in favor of at all would be the Amelia Island Museum of History, because they don’t get anything from the county. … The rest of them, I’m sorry. I don’t not want to help people out, but not here. I’ll go along with the consensus on the amount for the Museum.”
Filkoff advised commissioners that eliminating the $35,000 for non-profit grants would have a minimal effect on the city’s millage (0.02). “Changing our relationships with non-profits in the city is something we should think about,” she said. “I definitely think the Museum needs to be part of that, but also I can’t just shake a stick at what these other organizations do for the city, and that maybe they can help keep people off that list of citizens who need to have their sewer bills forgiven each year. It’s a big circle and what goes around, comes around, and it will all come back to us one way or another. I guess I do believe in karma. If what I’m faced with is how much to give the Museum—and only the Museum… is that what we are saying?”
After a pause, Boner asked if it was possible to return to the concept of granting matches. Corbett replied that he had read through the requests and found no evidence of matches, despite Boner’s claims. Boner tried to explain that this information would be shown on specific requests to other granting agencies.
An impassioned and frustrated Filkoff said, “The problem I have with this is the City of Fernandina Beach has constantly questioned itself as to whether it should do or not do this type of funding. But it has never totally stopped doing it. … Regardless of how much somebody else gave them, it seems to me that it is our responsibility to provide some kind of support so the city taxpayers do not have an even greater cost down the road. And I am one of the commissioners who supported the Human Society [request for assistance in funding a new shelter], and I will support that vote until the day I die. But these are people, and I cannot see how we would not give this money to those organizations, while we see our responsibilities to animals – and we should. But these are our citizens. I don’t know that I can make this call [just granting money to the Museum]. I love the Museum. They have partnered with us, stepped up when we’ve asked them, and they’ve continued to do it. I want them to have some of this money. But we’re talking 0.02 millage! To what end? What are we trying to do?”
Commissioner Gass responded. “I’m trying to add it all up,” she said. “$33,803 for Shrimp Fest, $51,000 for the library, $25,000 for sewer exemptions, and $35,000 for non-profits comes up to $144,803 of taxpayer dollars.” Boner jumped in saying, “Then you need to add in the $8M economic impact from Shrimp Fest, the matching grants and look at what you are turning away for $35,000.”
Gass retorted, “If people aren’t smart enough to take care of their own, then why don’t we just crank up the millage rate as high as it will go so we can collect as much money as we can and find people to give it to?”
Corbett reminded commissioners that the citizens of Fernandina Beach are already giving money to the county for this purpose. “The citizens contribute about 29% to the county’s budget. So it’s not like they aren’t giving anything,” he said.
Boner responded, “But we’re not comparing ourselves to the county.” Boner would not be deterred. “The [city] millage will go up if we don’t support some of these things. Because the cost of giving is far less than the cost of not giving,” he said.
Boner stressed the cost of not giving, which could contribute to bigger, more costly problems for the city down the road. He said he agreed with Filkoff about the animal shelter, which he also supports. “What it says about the city is that supporting older people, supporting battered women or families in crisis is not as important [as helping animals].”
Pelican stood by the decision about the Humane Society. “I feel that everyone should have a choice as to who to give to,” she said. Mayor Pelican went on to say that Nassau County provides close to a million dollars to non-profit organizations and that some of that money comes from Fernandina Beach taxpayers as well. She said that the only requesting organization that receives no money from the county is the Amelia Island Museum of History. “Are we ready to say that we may have to lay off 3 people in the city to support non-profits through arbitrary rankings?” she asked.
Corbett said that since the county gives money, he is not prepared to give to any non-profit other than the museum. He suggested $10,000 for the Museum, which had requested $15,000.
Phyllis Davis, Executive Director of the Amelia Island Museum of History, rose to thank the commission for its past support and remind commissioners that the Museum has been a good partner with the city over the years, helping the city in many ways in addition to providing many services to local residents and school children. “We are not just a partner with the city but with other non-profits as well,” she said. Regarding Boner’s concern about grants, she added, “It does speak volumes, when you write a grant, to be able to say that your city supports you. I am writing a National Endowment for the Humanities grant right now and will include that information. It says something [to the granting agency] if your own hometown does not support you. Every grant application asks that. We’re here to help you, and we are asking you to help us.”
The audience, consisting almost exclusively of Museum supporters, applauded Davis’ remarks.
Vice Mayor Corbett said that he would feel comfortable giving $10,000, the same amount the city provides this fiscal year, once again to the Museum. After more discussion, all commissioners but Gass and Pelican agreed. Gass wanted to make it clear that indeed she does support local non-profits, but she does not believe that government should take on that role. She said, “I will lead by example and that’s what the rest of the community should do. When I go home this afternoon, I will write a $1,000 check to the Museum.”
Pelican agreed in spirit with Gass. She said, “What I do is between myself and the non-profits I support.”
Filkoff and Boner agreed to $10,000 for the Museum, while holding their positions that it is a mistake not to fund the other agencies as well.
Mayor Pelican recognized local resident Mike Spino, who addressed the commission from a prepared statement. After thanking the commissioners for their service, he spoke abut the relationship of budgets to community priorities. “Let’s start by talking about what budget’s are: budgets are plans designed to implement public policy choices,” he said. “Budgets reflect what is important in a community. In our community we can see that our Festivals, non-profit and public institutions make up a quilt of community interests that tie us all together. Whether it is the Museum, the Barnabas Center, the Council on Aging or Shrimp Fest we are bound together by these organizations. City support for these organizations is important for two reasons. These are essential services. Feeding the hungry, providing mental health services, economic development and education are critical components of our little town. City support sends the signal to rest of our community that these organizations are credible and worthy of broader support. In short if you do not support our critical organizations you are pulling away the threads of our quilt and shredding the fabric of our community. I urge you to support these organizations.
Spino then turned his attention to funding capital improvements. “I have heard some in the community say: we should only pay cash for everything,” he said. “Quite frankly this is foolish. For over 200 years American municipalities have borrowed funds to build schools, bridges and water treatment facilities. The basic underlying principle is that taxpayers should pay for the facilities they use over their useful life. If you pay cash for say a new dog and cat shelter you are requiring today’s taxpayers to pay the full freight of a resource that we may use for 10 – 20 or 50 years. Honestly, paying cash for major capital improvements is terribly unfair to today’s taxpayers. I urge you to continue the proven practice of responsible borrowing for major capital projects.”
“As a side note,” he added, “the industry standard for sound borrowing is that debt service not exceed 5% of the General Fund. It is my understanding that Fernandina is well under this benchmark. I would also urge you to continue the practice of not borrowing for operating purposes.”
His remarks were greeted with strong audience applause.
Mayor Pelican reminded Spino that the Nassau Humane Society is in the midst of a capital campaign and they are raising the money to build the shelter. The amount of money that the city gives barely covers the cost of the services they provide, she claimed. She also cited the Friends of the Library fundraising to support new library construction.
Spino said, “Great point. And I’m sure we would say the same about these other non-profit organizations [who raise funds privately].”
City Comptroller Patti Clifford verified that it was the consensus of the Commission to earmark $10,000 for the Museum in the FY 2013-14 Budget, but not spend the remaining $25,000 allocated for non-profit grant funding. She said that the unspent funds would be placed in the city’s reserves.
Earlier in the discussion, the FBCC agreed to continue funding sewer service for elderly and aged residents who fall below the adjusted annual income of $10,000 and meet other strict requirements. Last year the city paid these bills for 34 people, at a cost of about $17,000. Commissioner Gass said she would like to find another way to get this done. Comptroller Patti Clifford reminded the Commission that the city has a program called “Love Your Neighbor,” which allows water service customers to contribute one or five dollars monthly to helping families in distress pay water bills. The Salvation Army screens applications. Money collected may be used to pay one water bill in a year for applicants who meet the criteria. Since the program was initiated 3 years ago, Clifford said that it has helped 153 families. City Manager Gerrity reminded the commissioners and the public that contributions may be made by check off on utility bills or by mailing a check to the city directly for this purpose.
August 15, 2013 8:54 a.m.