By Chip Ross
For years a few individuals have publicly stated that the city of Fernandina Beach is a “criminal enterprise for its violation of state impact and building fee laws.” These few individuals appear to believe there is an “illegal enterprise” involving the collection and disbursement of impact and building fees, which has existed for more than 20 years.
Most recently these individuals opined that “state auditors and law enforcement should investigate the city’s administration of state impact and building fees and the administration of the funds those fees generate.”
Their allegations stem from the city’s purchase of the potable water facility from Florida Public Utilities in 2003. The city commission passed Ordinance 2003-06, which imposed a water capacity fee, or impact fee. Money from the fees was to help finance the bond to purchase the system.
Some years later, in 2011, a class action case was filed, which challenged the imposition of those specific impact fees. The city filed a separate case to validate the lawfulness of the fees to pay the bonds. In the city’s case, the court found that the use of impact fees was legal, but the city’s method for creating the impact fee did not follow state requirements, and that the fees were not solely used to accommodate the expansion of the system for new customers.
The class action case was settled, which required the city to pay back the impact fees into a class settlement fund (specifically to new residents and users).
To continue to shift the burden of funding new growth of the water system to new residents with impact fees, the city hired a professional, national firm, Burton & Associates, to rewrite the utility impact fee ordinances and conduct a capacity study. This met the first test of state statutes and the existing case law, that the fee must be “proportionate to the benefit.” The firm also conducted the financial analysis component, which was the second test of the statute.
Not to be confused with water and sewer impact fees, since 2004 the city has also imposed impact fees on new construction to cover a percentage of the costs of new construction required to support the public infrastructure needs of new residential or commercial building. Those infrastructure needs include: parks and recreation; fire and rescue; police protection; public buildings and facilities. The validity of these fees was based on two separate studies in 2004 and 2015 by Dr. James Nicholas, a recognized international expert in natural resource and land use management, Florida growth management legislation, urban land economics, urban and regional planning, and environmental and urban problems.
Building fees are separate and not related to impact fees. Building fees are collected and only used to fund the Building Department activities to assure compliance with the Florida Building Code. None of the building fees collected go into the general fund. This is confirmed yearly by the city auditors.
Building fees are approved every year by the city commission. The previous city commission, which included the current mayor and vice-mayor, voted unanimously to approve the current fees. The building fees are set yearly and can be increased, decreased, or eliminated by the city commission.
For the last 15 years more than 15 city commissioners, two city managers, one city attorney, two comptrollers, two audit committees, two CPA firms that conduct annual audits, more than eight building officials, and more than 20 city staff members have been involved in collecting and disbursing impact and building fees.
Because allegations of “criminal” activity accuse the above city staff, chartered offices and elected officials, as an elected official I contacted Mr. Derek Noonan, audit manager and auditor general of the state of Florida. He recommended that I contact the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the State Attorney’s Office and the Department of Justice if citizens believe a “criminal enterprise” is truly occurring.
As a result, a packet of materials containing various articles containing the allegations, written by specific members of the public, were sent to Mr. Josh Mead, Special Agent Supervisor of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Mr. Chris Huband, Deputy Director, Nassau County State Attorney’s Office and Sean T. Ryan, Assistant Special Agent in Charge, the FBI Criminal and Administrative Branch, Jacksonville. All three agencies acknowledged the receipt of the materials.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, State’s Attorney Office, and the FBI have all been given notice that certain members of the community believe the members of the city government have been involved in “criminal activity.”
Any individual now has the opportunity of directly communicating with the above law enforcement agencies to expand on any details concerning these allegations. Any further investigation by law enforcement agencies is at the agency’s discretion.
For further questions or concerns, I can be contacted at [email protected].
Why is this article in the Observer?
At the risk of speaking for Commissioner Ross, I do know this: He got tired of people calling the commission and city staff criminals. So he referred those allegations to the appropriate investigative authorities. He didn’t say this, but I read the underlying message as, “Put up or shut up.” That’s his opinion, and the piece is labeled Commentary. Whenever you see this, it’s the author’s opinion. I encourage thoughtful, well-written commentaries (as opposed to rants). A robust flow of comments and commentaries makes for a stronger community, I sincerely believe.
Sounds like an indirect gag order to me. Tasteless intimidation. Keep your Fernandina Beach… at least until Chip Ross is gone. If I were the concerned constituents, I would keep right on pursuing it. Get the audit. Don’t let a letter to the FBI stop you from an audit that’s been overdue for a long while now.
Chip Ross is one great public servant – and one great Doc. Sounds like you doth protest too much.
I applaud the initiative of getting the appropriate authorities involved. If the claims are true, the “criminals” will be held accountable. Otherwise, those involved in spreading what appear to be completely unfounded allegations are the true criminals.
Dang. This is the problem with America today. Thin skin, not allowing others to have a contrary opinion, and then by golly, hiring the Federal goon squad to crush those that don’t agree with you. Yes, the opposing voices are loud and cutting. Yes, current policy seems fine in your mind, but not all others agree. Growing tired of hearing the opposition, is no reason to call in the Feds. Maybe this will work for you, maybe not. Just appears on the surface to be poor brinkmanship.
Bob, when people accuse city officials and staff of “running a criminal enterprise”, the charge should be based upon facts – not opinion. If they are correct, wouldn’t you want the situation investigated?
These weren’t opposing voices, they were accusations. Wouldn’t you want the opportunity to clear your name and reputation by obtaining the facts and knowing the truth if you had been accused of a crime?
I would expect fact finding for the truth of this matter to be the desire of all the commissioners.
Sounds like Chip hit a nerve. Good. The FBI exists for many reasons.
Pfft. The FBI won’t give credence to Ross’s letter. That’s petty stuff. They are probably laughing at him.
I’m my humble opinion. It remains to be seen IF the “proper authorities” will do anything at all.
This behavior–public shaming–is pretty typical of Dr. Ross. Similar behavior by Dale Martin contributed to his firing…..we deserve better from our city leaders.
True, the “accusers” should present reasonable evidence that crimes have been committed, no federal or state agency will start an investigation based on rumors or speculation. Hopefully the more adult Commissioners will take a serious look at the issue and not “tattle”……sad and embarrassing.
I have been a realtor in Atlanta, Ga. for more than 30 years and have often referred my clients to Amelia Island for vacationing or retirement. Just reading and hearing about the ongoing smear campaigns and distasteful behaviors down there in Fernandina Beach is alarming. And this letter written by this Chip Ross? Ridiculous. A physician? Sheesh. Too much childish drama.
As a taxpayer, I’m thankful to have someone thorough looking out for us.
Perhaps your opinion should remain in Atlanta.
Reply to Paul
If you are a realtor in Atlanta, why is this any concern of yours? Personally, I’d be delighted if you stopped encouraging clients to retire to Fernandina Beach. We are over-populated as is.
Oh knock it off. Tons of part time residents spend a lot of tax dollars here. While not full time residents, they are part of the community and deserve to be heard.
I remember when people in Fernandina were kind-hearted and welcoming. I apologize for the people who want to stifle anyone without their same opinion.
that was my point!
What I find embarrassing is citizens leveling serious allegations against city staff and Commissioners without proof. That creates unnecessary discord and suspicion in our community.