Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
August 7, 2014 11:55 a.m.
City 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?”
- 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
Pelican 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.
Gerrity 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
Commissioner 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
Boner 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.
Bach 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.”
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.
Editor’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.