Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
August 7, 2014 11:55 a.m.

yes noCity of Fernandina Beach voters may be asked to weigh in on several straw ballot questions and possibly one binding referendum on the November city election ballot.  At the August 5, 2014 Regular Meeting of the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC), commissioners gave direction to City Attorney Tammi Bach to bring back for their consideration at the August 19, 2014 meeting ballot language asking for citizen support on borrowing possibly as much as $35M for three separate projects:  approved waterfront plan improvements, a downtown parking garage and stormwater drainage projects.  Voters would also be asked to weigh in on underwriting a feasibility study on the possible sale and rezoning of municipal golf course property.  After discussion the FBCC rejected another possible straw poll question regarding placing utility wires underground until further study can be done.

Commissioners are also supporting a binding referendum to extend commissioner terms from three to four years, providing such an item can be passed as an ordinance to meet the Nassau County Supervisor of Elections’ deadline for receipt of ballot language.  It remains to be seen if such a change would be presented as a straw poll question, should it not be possible to pass the required ordinance by the August 26 deadline.

City Manager Joe Gerrity sought FBCC consensus to allow the City Attorney to proceed to draft language for the ballot.  Discussion began with four questions submitted by Vice Mayor Sarah Pelican.  “Actually, based upon conversations we’ve had up here, yesterday I took the liberty of providing some direction to the City Attorney with respect to what I perceived the direction in which our conversations had gone.  Do you have those?”

DSCN3021City Attorney Tammi Bach read from a list of possible referendum questions provided by Vice Mayor Sarah Pelican:

  • Borrowing up to $10M to complete waterfront improvement projects previously approved by the FBCC in 2009 and 20012 and affirmed in 2013;
  • Asking citizens if they are interested in selling all or part of the golf course;
  • Borrowing up to $8M to build a parking garage downtown to relieve parking congestion;
  • Borrow money to complete city stormwater projects estimated to cost about $17M.

Bach added that she felt the golf course question was too broad and would need refinement.  She also said that she was not clear if Pelican meant to borrow the $17M to do all the stormwater projects at once or whether they would be phased in over time.  Pelican said that her stormwater question was based upon an email she received from local resident Len Kreger.

Underground utilities ballot question discussed

DSCN2989Pelican went on to say that based upon questions raised during Florida Public Utilities’ (FPU) presentation earlier in the evening, the FBCC could add a fifth question regarding subterranean utilities.  After a pause Bach asked Pelican if she could be a bit more specific, adding that the cost of moving utility lines underground would be very expensive.  Bach said that according to the report of the city-authorized Underground Utilities Committee several years ago, such a move was recommended with the proviso that FPU foot the bill.  “We all know,” Bach said, “that the costs would then just be passed on to the ratepayers.”

Bach suggested that perhaps the question should be:  will you agree to have your electric rates raised – percent increase not currently known – to place utility lines underground?  Bach said that she remembered an estimated price of $1M per mile to do so with additional charges to be born by the customer to connect to a residence or business from the trunk line in the right-of-way.  Gerrity added that was an old estimate.  He suggested that first the commission look at solving drainage problems before tackling such a project.  The current city ordinance requires property owners who replace an electric line, to place it underground unless the cost is prohibitive.  He added that during the past two years he has only been asked to waive this provision 2-3 times.  Gerrity said that placing utility lines underground is a much broader question with engineering and other implications.  Bach suggested that the commissioners read the copy of the report as background for future discussion.  It was the consensus of the FBCC not to include a question on underground utilities on the November ballot.

Golf course question

Commissioner Johnny Miller returned to the question of the sale of golf course lands.

DSCN3027Gerrity said that the city would need a lot more information to make a decision to sell land, and that such information would be best provided by a third party with no bias toward selling or keeping the land.  He said that at the next meeting he would provide the FBCC with information on tax revenues that might be realized should some of the land be sold.  Miller said that he would like to change the City Attorney’s wording of the question to ask about public support for a change in land use.  He suggested language that would seek the electorate’s support to spend money to research the to determine how viable such a sale might be.

Pelican reminded him that the referendum needed to be stated in no more than 75 words.  Gass asked “For each referendum?” Bach agreed.

Mayor Boner suggested that Miller was really looking toward a marketing study or a feasibility study.  Miller agreed.

Waterfront improvement plan

DSCN2993Commissioner Miller asked for clarification on the proposed waterfront question.  He felt that all the commission’s recent discussions surrounded the waterfront park only. Bach reaffirmed that the $10M loan would apply to all the improvements identified and approved for the entire waterfront area, not including Centre Street.  Commissions in 2009 and 2012 approved these plans, and those approvals were reaffirmed in 2013.

Parking garage and stormwater borrowing

Bach asked if the commissioners were satisfied with straw ballot language she had read regarding borrowing to build a downtown parking garage and to complete stormwater drainage projects.  Commissioners were satisfied with those questions.

But Mayor Boner said, “ I think you need to explain that the stormwater projects take time.  Even if you borrowed all the money tomorrow you wouldn’t be able to do all that the first year.”  Pelican said that she would like to have more discussion on that topic and had thought that local resident Len Kreger would be at the meeting to speak to it, “because he’s kind of really done his homework on that.”

Bach said that she remembered the original discussion in which it was decided that these projects would be done over dozens of years.  Gerrity added that while the FBCC had been asked to approve a stormwater fee of $6-12 per month per household, the commission had never passed that item.  Bach sought advice or guidance from the commissioners on fashioning the ballot language.  Pelican advised her, “Speak to Len Kreger who really has done his homework on this.”

Extending Commissioner terms from 3 to 4 years

DSCN2991Boner said he had one more question that he would like considered.  He said he felt strongly about adding a 4th year to commissioner terms.  He suggested a straw poll question that would seek voter approval to pursue a Charter change to do so with the proviso that any sitting commissioner who would effectively benefit from the change would need to run again for that 4th year rather than receive an automatic extension.  He felt that such a change would increase voter turnout, synchronize city elections with those of the county and state, and cost less for the voters.  “We should match the county on everything we do, whether it is term limits or 4 year terms,” he said.  “I think it is hard when you are sitting here he said to vote for anything that might benefit you, but there’s got to be a way to get there.”  Commissioner Charlie Corbett joked, “That’s one way. Another is, you only get paid if you run for the extra year.”  Following laughter, a brief discussion ensued regarding the low salary commissioners earn.

DSCN3019Bach attempted to refocus the discussion asking, “Is this something you want to do as a straw poll, a test?”  Boner replied, “If everyone here supported this, I would love to have a [binding] referendum question.”  Commissioner Pat Gass said, “I’d love to have it [as a binding referendum question].”

Both Bach and Gerrity expressed concerns that because of the approaching deadline for ballot language and the need for an ordinance, there might not be enough time to put this question to the voters as a Charter change.  Bach said that she would work with City Clerk Caroline Best to see if sufficient time were left to advertise the item and hold two public hearings.  “This would be a high profile question,” Bach said.  “Do you think there is enough time to educate the voters?”   Gass replied, “There is plenty of time for that, it’s just meeting the deadline for the Supervisor of Elections.”  Bach said, “We’ll see if we can do it.”

Summary discussion

Mayor Boner said his only question had to do with looking at the total amount of money to be borrowed for all the named projects:  $35M.  He expressed concern that voters might say, “Gee, that’s a lot of money.  By the time they get past the first $10M, they are going to say ‘No, no, no.  I don’t want you to borrow so much.  Why are you asking me?’”  Gerrity shared Boner’s concerns.  “I think the Mayor brings up a good point,” he said.  “If you overload this with dollars, you just will get no, no, no.”  Bach agreed. Miller countered by reminding commissioners that the golf course question might bring in money.  Boner continued his argument.  “If you follow all these borrowing questions with a binding referendum question—“Do you want us to have another year [in office]? …  All this talk of borrowing might affect the election.”

There was no discussion of the traditional straw poll question seeking voter input on the next mayor.  To date, only incumbent Mayor Ed Boner and Commissioner Pat Gass have expressed interest in seeking this position.

Suanne ThammEditor’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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Dave Lott
Dave Lott (@guest_20760)
8 years ago

Wow, quite a list and not a lot of detail to serve as a basis of information for the informed voter to make a choice. But then maybe voting on a half-researched idea and inflating the cost numbers is the goal of some to guarantee a “no” vote.
Stormwater: Rather than reinvent the wheel and rely on non-expert citizen’s research (which will have a level of bias – apologies to Len Kreger who is a dedicated volunteer and advocate), the City had a study done in 2010 on establishing a stormwater assessment and that report contained a list of all the stormwater projects totaling $18 million with two of the projects in excess of $4 million each. Due to the economic recession being felt at the time, my recollection is that the Commission established a minimal charge that the 2013-14 budget shows will bring in an estimated $260,000. This will cover about $3.5 million in capital improvements (assuming 4.5% over 20 years); not enough for either of the larger projects. The report is available on the City website at the following link: http://www.fbfl.us/documentcenter/view/3912.
Golf Course: As to the golf course, so many questions. Which of the 3 courses will be sold? What impact will that have on the number of rounds that can be played on the remaining 18 holes? Instead of looking to sell developed parts of the golf course, why not consider selling the triangle of undeveloped land at the corner of Bucaneer Trail and AI Parkway or on the north side of AI Parkway at 14th Street that was purchased out of golf course funds years ago to be used for possible expansion? Why not consider selling the tennis courts at Central Park as they don’t generate any revenue for the City (hope you understand that is a facetious question).
Waterfront: Where did the $10 million price tag come from? Last report I have on the F2 plan was $5.5 million for it all. See document at http://www.fbfl.us/documentcenter/view/6635
Parking garage: on what basis is the $8 million cited? How many parking spaces are needed to solve the alledged downtown parking problem? Where is there a city-owned lot large enough to handle a parking garage? Oh, the waterfront? LOL
Term length changes: this concept was soundly defeated in 2009 with 65% of the voters saying no: 75% wanted term limits continued and 53% approved the change in election dates that effectively moved City elections from the Spring to the Fall. What is prompting Mayor Boner to raise this question again?
So many questions, so little time!

Jim Powers
Jim Powers(@jimepowersme-com)
8 years ago

Dave Lott, as usual, made several salient points. I will elaborate on just one of the points he mentioned — the possible sale of golf course property.

About 4 years ago, I researched the availability of non-utilized golf course land with the help of City Planner Kelly Gibson. Dave mentioned a couple of the parcels involved. A more complete list includes: about 5 acres at Buccaneer Trail and Amelia Island Parkway — along with a couple parcels on the north side of the Parkway and 14th Street — and about 5 or 6 acres on the south of Canopy Road. The largest collection of unused parcels totals 34 acres south of Simmons Road and north of the existing 27 hole golf course.

Maybe a third of that 34 acres is wetlands, but the rest have been deemed suitable for residential development. In fact, 24 acres were proposed for sale in 2007, but the Commission voted against putting that potential sale on the ballot for voter consideration.

There are a couple of other proposals in the City records concerning possible development — one in 2006 for a 2 acre shopping center on the Parkway, as I recall.

Lots of basic research has already been completed. Why does Commissioner Miller want the electorate to decide if the City should spend City funds to complete this research? The Commission does not need permission to do its homework! It is their job — and the job of professional staff — to provide the electorate with thoroughly researched data before asking the question — about selling unused land or about selling part of the existing — and very much used — 27 hole golf course. WHAT is the rush to get this straw vote on the ballot at the last possible moment when there has been NO background information provided to the electorate?

Jim Powers
jimepowers17@me.com

1728 Heather Street
Fernandina Beach, Florida 32034

tony crawford
tony crawford (@guest_20770)
8 years ago

I read and re read this article. Dave made some very good points. I think before any of this can be put up for a vote some basic information is needed or we are just wasting our time and effort once again. These are just my thoughts on the issue.
Storm waste: We live on an island and have been told this is needed. It seems to be a true responsibility of City Government to make a long term plan and get it done.

The Golf Course: I don’t play golf. These are just over simplified ideas. Why not take up the offer to have the new Greens put in. Set a goal/ timeline for profit. Have a clause that if the profit isn’t met we can re pay the $50,000 offered for the contract extension. Then make a decision as to what we want to do. The value of the land will not go down. I think if we set a reasonable profit goal and it is met we are fine. If it is not and we are just throwing more money into a loosing proposition then selling part of the land may be an option.

Parking: I have said it before, we don’t have a parking problem—- we have a walking problem. 8 mil is a lot to fix a problem that most don’t see as a problem. If our City leaders, the Police and and some community leaders met, I think that through better signage, better space marking, change in parking rules and taking areas such as the City Hall parking lot and making some improvements we can solve this problem. If the Commission is to convince the voter’s that a new garage is needed we need some facts and figures to back up an 8 mil investment. Prove to us it is a cost effective project that will not be a white elephant. Show us this will be profitable both in and out of season. I have always found a space when downtown. It was not in front of the store I was always going to. Bad part about that is we had to walk a block or two past other stores and when we do that we seem to stop, look in other stores, and spend more money than we set out to spend. My point is foot traffic generates more revenues for our downtown merchants. Give us the facts and figures to convince us to approve this.

The water front: Don’t even know what to say about this so I will just keep my mouth shut. There is nothing I could add to a 20 year conversation that would make any sense.

Term length: We have that. It’s election day. It is kind of a check and balance system to get out those who aren’t doing what we feel they should and putting others in who we feel will. Why would we want to extend the term of anyone who we feel isn’t doing what they were hired to do? If we like what they are doing we will vote them back in for a full term. It is just my position but I don’t agree with term limits of any type. I think we should get out and vote. If someone is doing a good job, keep voting him or her in. If we are displeased with their performance vote them out.
The other point that Dave brought up is that the f2 plan was costing about 5 or 6 mil. I didn’t read in this article where the funding was coming for any of this. To be fair f2 had the funding in place with a long term low interest rate attached. How does the City plan to fund any of these projects. I don’t think it is appropriate
to ask us to vote for projects of this scale without a full explanation of cost, interest rates, longevity of the loan and what type of loan are we plan on using. Please give us the information so we can be better educated when asked to vote.

Margo Story
Margo Story (@guest_20844)
8 years ago
Reply to  tony crawford

I am totally in with Tony’s way of thinking. I live on N. Fletcher & there is no drainage for rainwater, my driveway ends up being a pool! I also agree about elections 3 yrs is long enuff to prove your worth to the community. There is just too much talk & no action…..

Len Kreger
Len Kreger (@guest_20778)
8 years ago

My recommendation for years is to implement the 2010 Storm water Plan.

My concern is that our present rate using the storm water fee it will take 70 years to complete!.

Dave Lott
Dave Lott (@guest_20784)
8 years ago

Len,
You are right that at the present stormwater fee assessment level it will take forever as you could only do about $3.5 million worth of work every 20 years. As the economy improves the Commission should escalate the fee from its paltry couple dollars a month to $75 – $100/year that would allow some of the major projects to get done using bond financing at current low interest rates.

John P. Megna
John P. Megna (@guest_20787)
8 years ago

Waterfront Plan: when this was approved by the Commissioners the cost was approximately 2 million, we had a loan at 2% and had paid into it over 2 years. Rest is history. As stated before, the now and existing rate of 4-5-6% looms – we don’t need to extend the terms of office. Do the Waterfront Park!
Golf Course: Dave again has good ideas, there are many lots, land acreage there, and many other things to consider before we wrongfully sell off the golf course for any reason. It still is a golf course that many enjoy and our efforts to put it back where it was should be our prime objective – not J.Miller’s constant effort to bring this up. (yes, I’m also not in favor of eating my meals with dogs in restaurant areas)
Unground stormwater construction = we have had this problem for a long time, I will leave that one for the experts.
Garage : If you were to ask me today to vote – my answer would be NO! Are there any other solutions to our parking problems? Yes! study them first and implement these as a less costly solutions. A Garage should and would be expensive and not always a profitable solution.
Finally: one of my favorite subjects: should we increase our Commissioner’s Term – another way of saying this do you want the same results for another year? Our election laws deal with many issues = getting voters to go out on Election Days, voters to elect the best candidates for the offices, educating the voters on the background, the individuals’ views and objectives. IF THE SMALL PERCENTAGE OF VOTERS CAST THEIR BALLOTS AND THE CANDIDATES ARE NOT ALWAYS DOING THE CORRECT JOB – THEN THE NON VOTERS DO NOT HAVE THE RIGHT TO JUDGE. In three years, we live with these, but not for another year!

Andrew Curtin
Andrew Curtin(@bkdriverajcgmail-com)
8 years ago

Wow.Sounds like everybody is getting their shorts in a knot over these questions.The purpose of the straw votes is to determine the voters’ level of interest in these projects .If the interest is there,develop detailed proposals.If not,put them aside until there is.
Either way,it is appropriate to seek voter support before proceeding.

tony crawford
tony crawford (@guest_20807)
8 years ago

There is a national clothing chain who’s motto is ” an educated consumer—is our best customer.” I feel that an educated voter—is our best voter. I agree with Andy that this is in part a only a straw pole. How can we as voters make an educated choice without knowing the cost? I doubt that there are many in the City who don’t want a better waterfront or better drainage, or a profitable golf course. The question is at what cost?
It was mentioned that with respect to underground electric the question may be “will you agree to have your electric rates raised–% not known.—- REALLY. Who in their right mind would agree to such a thing.
The idea that any of these items get passed, at least to me, is nonexistent.
As Dave Lott pointed out we did the “extension of term” exercises in 2009 and it failed miserably. Why do we want to do it again? Is there some public outcry to do this? Who is supporting this and why?
As I read this article it seemed that in every paragraph we are asking to borrow… 8 million, 10 million, or 17 million… like it was a drop in the hat.
Should the commission be in favor of all or any of these issues I think it would be best to “sell” us on them. My first question is, why do we need a parking garage? Where is it going? How will we pay for it? Are there sustainable facts that would make this cost effective for the city. Will it pay for itself and, if so, how?
The waterfront is something that was funded. How are we planning to fund these projects this time around and what will the estimated cost be for each taxpayer?
I am not against any of these improvements with the exception of a parking garage, which I would love to support if it can be shown it is needed and will pay for itself over time and is in the best interest of the city.
However, we need an explanation of the plans to fund these things before we sign on the dotted line. Even a straw poll carries it’s weight. What if —all this stuff is voted down, and I really can’t imagine anyone voting for something without any knowledge of the cost they will incur. What then? What does the next commission and the commission after that do to tackle these problems without the support of the people. The straw pole will be thrown in their face each time these issues re surface.
All I am asking is that should the Commission want these projects supported by the voters, they need to sell it to us. If it’s an issue that needs to be rushed through due to a due date, then let the next Commission tackle it. Please help us become educated voters.

John P. Megna
John P. Megna (@guest_20834)
8 years ago

The public is not advised of several issues on these above questions, need, cost, and where/how do we pay for these items. Fall back on garage: my prime objection to a garage has been the so-called location. I have always felt that the placement – location was and is behind the library. I thought it could have been part of the new library – a 3 story building with a walk-way to the library. Cost wise, it would be at this time too expensive – the lot will there for a while.

Dave Lott
Dave Lott (@guest_20869)
8 years ago

Andy, no shorts in a knot – just asking for a fair playing field. As Tony and John have pointed out, without a complete understanding of the scope of the proposal, its cost, source of repayment, etc. it is a political manuever not a true fact-facting exercise of the voter’s direction. How did the waterfront development costs grow from $5.5 million to the recently commissioner cited $10 million? If these “straw votes” go forward I would offer the following to accompany them:
1. Do you favor a freeze in property taxes for the next 10 years?
2. Do you favor the renaming of Fernandina Beach to “Googleland” in exchange for a one-time payment of $350 million?
3. Do you favor the razing of the downtown post office for the construction of the next Trump Tower?
Ridiculous, yes but they would have good company.

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