Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
This is definitely NOT an April Fool’s story.
During a Special Meeting on March 31, 2015, the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) reached consensus on moving forward with the complete Amelia Riverfront Park Plan. In a surprising show of unanimity the FBCC voted 5-0 in support of a motion made by Commissioner Tim Poynter and seconded by Commissioner Robin Lentz “to move forward with Parking Lot B as part of the master plan and that we investigate extending the contract that we already have in place – the dollars –to finance the sidewalks that are needed [east of the railroad tracks and north of Centre Street] and the opening of Alachua [railroad crossing].” City Attorney Tammi Bach clarified that “extending the contract” meant refinancing the same pledge remaining from the Forward Fernandina loan.
The successful motion followed a failed motion (3-2 in opposition) made by Commissioner Pat Gass and seconded by Vice Mayor Johnny Miller “to direct staff to proceed with Parking Lot B as planned and to begin looking for funding sources for the Alachua Street improvements and sidewalks, preferably without borrowing money.”
Fewer than a dozen audience members attended the meeting that lasted almost two hours, during which Deputy City Manager Marshall McCrary presented results of city staff investigations into waterfront/CRA projects and possible methods to finance them. Three people—Mike Zaffaroni, Ross Gass, and John Pelican—provided public input.
McCrary slide presentation
In response to commissioners’ requests for both history and status of projects along Front Street and the Amelia River, Deputy City Manager Marshall McCrary presented a series of slides. McCrary took commissioners back to the original waterfront plan as approved in 2009 and then worked forward to current plans modified in 2012 for the Parking Lot B section of the plan. He also presented updates on railroad issues, cost estimates and financing options.
The reconfiguration of parking to add 13 more spaces in what is currently Parking Lot B will reduce the size of the park area by 8-10 feet. It may also call into question whether the change will eliminate two-way traffic between Centre and Ash Streets.
While CSX Railroad has verbally agreed to the plan, the city has not yet received anything in writing to support the plan change. The current estimate is that implementing the plan for Parking Lot B will cost around $200K, excluding the cost of city workers.
Mayor Ed Boner asked whether the plans provide for stormwater. Commissioner Poynter said that during earlier consideration, the city had tentatively worked out a deal to purchase land from Rayonier for $75,000 to create a stormwater retention pond. However, the previous commission effectively squashed the plan when it returned the monies borrowed to improve the waterfront.
City Manager Joe Gerrity said that Utilities Director John Mandrick is exploring some creative ways to address stormwater, including rerouting and treating the water for reuse in watering city golf course greens. Mandrick agreed that a line is in place already to allow such a move and that the idea “warrants a good look,” but that some retention would still be needed.
Lentz expressed concerns that the new parking scheme would make the park quite small. She asked what staff recommended. McCrary said that there is not a major risk in starting work on the waterfront park with Lot B, but he wanted to see the engineering work. Gerrity added that he would not begin work on Parking Lot B now because of Shrimp Fest and summer traffic in the area.
Boner seemed to share Gerrity’s concerns about traffic disruptions along Front Street. He asked Gerrity how big a window he would need to open the Alachua crossing. Gerrity said that he would phase the work beginning with the Alachua crossing and wayside horns, proceed to build the sidewalk along the east side of the railroad tracks and work on Lot B at the same time. He said that since the portion of Front Street included in Parking Lot B would need to be closed during construction, it would be important to have another means to access the north part of Front Street, which the Alachua opening could provide. He felt that he would address public safety and railroad concerns with both the street opening and the new sidewalk.
McCrary stressed the importance of opening Alachua for traffic flow, adding that it restores the grid pattern to city streets. He told commissioners that the city has the FDOT permit to proceed with opening the rail crossing, and that the bulk of engineering work was done 3-4 years ago. He expressed his belief that opening this crossing—previously budgeted at $750K–is important for future growth.
Railroad issues: quiet zones and wayside horns
Both McCrary and Gerrity agreed that creating quiet zones along the Front Street section of rail track was probably not feasible because of costs and construction difficulties. Also, the railroad is on record as opposing quiet zones for safety reasons. The city is trying to address railroad concerns regarding restricting pedestrian access to the tracks by providing landscape buffering and a sidewalk running north three blocks on the east side of the tracks from Centre Street.
Commissioner Robin Lentz asked about the use of wayside horns as a means to limit train noise downtown. Gerrity agreed to look at that possibility and thanked local resident Tony Crawford for his investigation into the matter. Although wayside horns might appear to be less expensive initially than complete reconfiguration of existing crossings required to create quiet zones, the horns do require some work on signalization and may not sufficiently reduce noise in the Front Street area to encourage residential or lodging activities.
Financing the improvements
McCrary told commissioners that there are three types of municipal bonds that could be used to finance the waterfront projects:
General Obligation Bonds – secured by pledge of ad valorem taxes and referendum required for bonds maturing more than 12 months from issuance
Revenue Bonds – secured by pledge from specific sources of revenue and referendum not required
Special Assessment Bonds – a type of revenue bond payable from special assessments.
Commissioners Pat Gass and Tim Poynter led the discussion on financing, with Gass maintaining her core belief that grants or pay-as-you-go funding is the best option while Poynter claimed that initial funding needs to be provided by the city before matching grants can be sought. Gass seemed to agree, but claimed that if the city would begin the project with Parking Lot B—where funding is more or less in place—the city could then look for grants to open Alachua Street and build the sidewalk. She opined that building out Parking Lot B would stimulate CRA development and “kick-start the program.”
City Comptroller Patti Clifford told commissioners that the FBCC could agree to refinance the existing revenue bond (secured for Forward Fernandina) that is due to be paid off in three years, add a million dollars to the loan and pay it off over 15 years without needing to increase franchise fees or ad valorem taxes.
Gass responded “you don’t borrow money and put it in public officials’ hands unless you tie their hands.” Poynter replied that the way to tie public officials’ hands is to enter into a contract to do the work. City Attorney Bach added that without a contract, one commission couldn’t tie the hands of a future commission.
City Manager Gerrity reminded commissioners that three of them would be in office for close to three years, providing an opportunity to follow through on commitments to use the money for the projects they intend. (Note: First terms of both Ed Boner and Pat Gass expire November 2015.)
After considerable discussion, Gass offered her motion, which was seconded by Vice Mayor Johnny Miller for discussion: “to direct staff to proceed with Parking Lot B as planned and to begin looking for funding sources for the Alachua Street improvements and sidewalks, preferably without borrowing money.”
Poynter said that he could not support the motion, because the city has cut its budget back so far, the only way money could be found would be to increase the millage rate.
Gass said that the city needs to take care of “what we have” and then start looking for money. She suggested that the commissioners put the idea of a General Obligation Bond on the November ballot and talk to the people to find out if they would support paying an additional $50 per $100K of assessed valuation to pay for this project in this way. She reminded people that she and Ed Boner were elected to return the Forward Fernandina revenue bond. Boner reminded her that he did not vote ultimately to do so.
Vice Mayor Miller asked Gass why, if the commissioners know that people are behind the project, would they ask people for support via referendum, when the cost of using a revenue bond is so much lower. Miller also seemed to take issue with asking people to pay for a project that they might never see actualized during their lifetime. He suggested that if he were being asked to pay for a project, he would want to be able to use it now. Lentz echoed his concerns, saying that it would not be fair to ask people to pay ten years for something that they might not be able to ever use.
Poynter said that the debate basically boils down to a philosophical one, that there is a cost to living in a community, and you can’t isolate all the different projects, like beach renourishment, the waterfront park, and stormwater drainage. Everyone must bear the cost of living in the community. Refinancing the revenue bond would extend the life of the bond but not increase franchise fees that people are already paying.
Mayor Boner recognized city resident Mike Zaffaroni, a businessman who also chairs the city’s CRA Advisory Board and serves as local Chamber of Commerce board chair. Zaffaroni indicated that he was only speaking for himself on this issue.
He said, “I voted for you, not because you are spitting images of me, but because I expect you to vote for the best interest of the city based upon information that you have.” He said that he has lived in the city for 6 years and plans to live here indefinitely. “I plan to be here,” he said. “I voted for you to make decisions to make us successful.” He said that moving forward is “obviously the right decision” and noted that with interest rates sometimes below 2 percent, the city would be borrowing free money. He said that it is short-term vision that prevents the city from being successful.
Ross Gass, who identified himself as Pat Gass’ son, also addressed the commission. “I am not as opposed to debt as my mother,” he said, adding that he would support a General Obligation Bond. He said that he did not support a policy of shifting borrowed money to other purposes than those for which it was borrowed. He said that it is not the city’s job to “sweeten the pot for developers.”
Vote and new motion
Miller sought and received consensus that all commissioners supported the idea of a full waterfront park build out. He added, however, that he believed that the city would need to borrow money to achieve that goal. Gass’ motion failed on a 3-2 vote, with opposition from Boner, Lentz and Poynter.
Poynter then made his motion, which Lentz seconded: “to move forward with Parking Lot B as part of the master plan and that we investigate extending the contract that we already have in place – the dollars –to finance the sidewalks that are needed [east of the railroad tracks and north of Centre Street] and the opening of Alachua [railroad crossing].” City Attorney Tammi Bach clarified that “extending the contract” meant refinancing the same pledge remaining from the Forward Fernandina loan.
Mayor Boner took additional public comment. Mike Zaffaroni returned to the podium and said, “I’m one of 12,500 [city residents], and I think that’s a great idea.”
John Pelican, husband of former commissioner Sarah Pelican, said, “The problem with Forward Fernandina was that it didn’t borrow enough money. It just borrowed $2M and the origination fee. And so my problem with the project is not knowing what the ultimate cost is going to be. In going forward, semi-blindly, what’s the top line on it? Is it a $5M project, a $10M project? Depending on how high it is, you kind of need to know that so you know where you’re going when you go into it. I like the Parking Lot B part. But as far as start something so that you can’t stop it [like the Boston dig project]… the people would never have approved it. Secondarily, each dollar you raise the cost of living here, it doesn’t hurt the people who are doing well here. It hurts the people who aren’t doing as well. … Finally if you start getting into a really big price tag, is that the best use of the money? Communities never have enough money, so it’s just a matter of not falling in love with a certain project to the detriment of other projects.”
As the vote was taken, Commissioner Gass hesitated, asking if she would get another chance to vote on the loan. City Attorney Bach replied that the loan would come back in the form of a resolution to include the pledge, amount and terms. Gass said she would vote yes on the current motion because she would have a future opportunity to vote on the loan.
The motion passed unanimously.
After the vote City Manager Joe Gerrity asked to speak. He said that he did not want to get into the commission discussion, but he advised commissioners that when work begins on Parking Lot B, he is not sure that the street (Front Street) will be able to remain a two way street with the parking as currently configured. “Number two,” he added, “if you do open Alachua and build the sidewalks, you do improve traffic circulation, you’ve increased the ability of pedestrians to move about safely. That’s why I’ve recommended it.”