COVID-19 and City Spending – An opinion

By Chip Ross
Fernandina Beach
City Commissioner
April 5, 2020

The impacts of COVID-19 are being felt in everyone’s day to day life. The crisis has upended lives, impacted individual’s physical and mental health, and disrupted the economy on a scale that hasn’t been seen before in living memory. What adds to the anxiety is the lack of knowledge of when and how this will end.

The Covid-19 pandemic presents significant challenges to City government to continue to protect the health, safety and long-term viability of our community. We must not only focus on what will get us through the pandemic, but also on what we must do to preserve and protect our community in the future. We do not want to win a battle and then lose the war.

An immediate crisis within our community is food security. At this time, our food service providers for the elderly and the disadvantaged are tremendously being impacted. At the 7 April 2020 City Commission meeting a short-term funding effort will hopefully be placed on the agenda to help prevent hunger. The proposal, or variation of it, if enacted, will ensure that the Nassau County Council on Aging and Barnabas have adequate funding to support the senior meal program and the Barnabas food pantry program during this crisis.

In a crisis, citizens often overlook the monetary requirements necessary to provide essential services. The Police must be able to respond to keep law and order. The Emergency Medical Services [EMS] must swiftly respond to care for the sick and injured. The Fire Department must respond to fires and vehicular crashes. The toilets must flush, the waste is treated, and our drinking water remains clean and available. The trash must continually be removed, and the roads must stay open and be in good repair. To the City’s credit, the essential service staffing is excellent with solid leadership in these services. And thankfully, there are significant reserve funds to supplement any required increases in these operational expenses for the foreseeable future. The City has approximately 4.2 million dollars in reserves to ensure that the essential services are provided, even if all revenue would cease. Additionally, we must all remember that June marks the beginning of hurricane season, which we must monetarily be prepared to respond to, if that threat should arise.
Unfortunately, despite the arrival of a pandemic, the decay of some of our essential services buildings needs to be addressed in the very near future. City Hall and the 1st Avenue Fire Station/EMS physically require our attention as soon as the money can budgeted. There is no question that City Hall has the opportunity to flood in a hurricane, it is in the Special Hazard Flood Zone. And the 1st Ave. Fire Station is no longer large enough to house our fire vehicles, trucks and equipment. Delaying vehicle replacements may save some money in the short term, but the increased cost of replacement in the future may endanger the safety of our front-line providers in the short term.

No virus ends the costs of rebuilding and repairing decaying essential services structures. Nor will the pandemic stop future hurricanes. Climate change has not halted. The question is not if the City will flood, but when, how often, and how much. A large part of the waterfront project consists of shoreline protection which will protect the downtown and City Hall from flooding. To delay proceeding with continued engineering imperils our City to other dangers.

To add to the City’s financial recovery challenges, it has several restricted funds which cannot be diverted to other uses. And it faces a likely devastating blow to its sales tax receipts due to the drop in tourism and commercial activity. Our restricted funds, by law, can only be spent on certain activities as prescribed by the law that created the fund. Among them are the utility fund, the building fund, and the land conservation fund.

Previously, the City received approximately 2.2 million dollars a year in sales tax revenue. Tourism supplied 34% of it. This will impact the City’s current and future operations. Although we are only a third of the way into the fiscal year, the City has already collected almost half of those revenue sources.

At present, the City has several construction projects in progress, including the northern marina attenuator, phase II of the board-walk, and several beach walkovers. The contracts for these projects have been awarded, signed, and construction under-way. To stop these projects at this time would cost the City significant financial penalties and leave unfinished infrastructure.

Hopefully, in the short term and the long term, the City will adequately keep its essential services in the City functioning. It will keep our citizens secure in their needs for food, safety, and other essential services. And that it will cooperate with the County, State and Federal governments in containing and mitigating the spread and effects of the virus.

As the pandemic is brought under control, the City must then create a thoughtful plan for the medium-term and longer-term challenges as they unfold. The process will be the crafting a budget that supports both the short-term recovery efforts, and the long-term infrastructure needs which support and preserve the quality of life we enjoy.

I appreciate your comments. I can be reached at [email protected]

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