Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
July 23, 2015 4:06 p.m.

Misc - Boat, City Hall, Waterfront 012

During its July 21, 2015 Regular Meeting the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) acted on 4 resolutions and 9 ordinances (4 on first reading; 5 on second and final reading). They also reappointed Airport Advisory Commission member George Haffey to a new, 3-year term.

Items that generated discussion are listed below:

DSCN5254Resolution 2015-102: Approves an amendment to the budget for the Fiscal Year 2014-2015 to transfer $13,318 to the City Commission Health Insurance account from various Commission and Human Resources accounts for unbudgeted health insurance costs. Commissioner Pat Gass explained that she would not vote for this item because it covered health insurance costs for city commissioners, who are only part-time city workers. She said that there are 40 other part time city employees who do not receive health insurance coverage, and she believes that commissioners should be responsible for their own health insurance. She said that she will support a measure removing the $42,000 budgeted for this program in the FY 2015-16 budget and reprogramming the money to be used as grants for city non-profit agencies.

City Comptroller Patti Clifford
City Comptroller Patti Clifford

In response to a question from Vice Mayor Johnny Miller, city Comptroller Patti Clifford explained that this has been a long standing benefit offered to commissioners, and that the amendment was needed because more commissioners in the current fiscal year are taking advantage of the benefit than in the previous year. She added that if the FBCC does not approve the amendment for the current fiscal year, it will reflect negatively on the city during its annual audit.

City Manager Joe Gerrity explained that the amendment really needed to be approved and that discussion for the next fiscal year could take place during budget workshops.

The resolution passed on a 4-1 vote, with Gass dissenting.

Resolution 2015-103: Approves amendments to the budget for the Fiscal Year 2014-15, which transfers $80,000 for higher than budgeted salary expenses and overtime in the Fire Department.

timCommissioner Tim Poynter expressed his concern with such an item coming to the FBCC so late in the Fiscal Year. He said that the third chief was hired months ago. He said he didn’t remember the FBCC being asked to approve budgeting a position for a third chief position. City Manager Joe Gerrity said that was true, and he had used money from an unfilled part time position in the Fire Department. Gerrity said that adding the third position basically put back in place the command structure that had been established by former Fire Chief Dan Hanes. Poynter said he wasn’t questioning Gerrity’s decision to hire the third chief, he was just questioning why so much time had elapsed in bringing the budget matter to the FBCC, adding that he had brought the matter up in January. Gerrity said, “You told me to fix [the Fire Department problem], I did fix it, and it did cost some dollars.”

Mayor Ed Boner recognized a member of the public, Roy G. Smith, Jr., who echoed part of Poynter’s concern and asked about overlap between the interim chief and the new chief. Gerrity replied that the interim chief will leave on August 16 and the new chief will report on August 17.

DSCN5258Commissioner Robin Lentz asked why, since the decision to hire the third chief was made on September 29, 2014, why the previous commission had not been asked to approve the budget transfer. “It’s late in the game,” she said, “and seems a little underhanded.” She said that she had spoken to the city manager and received reassurances that the proposed amendment could be supported by the budget. She went on to express concerns over the amount of money being spent on overtime in the Fire Department, expressing the hope that with a new Fire Chief, that matter could be better controlled. She said the city needs to look at what is more economical: overtime or additional firefighters. She expressed a desire to explore options more fully during budget workshops.

Gerrity pointed to a city ordinance that requires certain levels of staffing throughout the day, which is partly responsible for overtime costs. He explained that the city is examining several ideas, one of which is implementing a new system, Telestaff, that automatically distributes overtime fairly by category of staff needed. Lentz stressed that she was not trying to undermine public safety, but just trying to look for ways for the city to curtail expenses. Gerrity said that this year has been an anomaly because several Fire Department employees were out on extended leave for different reasons, and their absences generated the overtime need.

Vice Mayor Johnny Miller suggested that this might be a good time to revisit the idea of volunteer firefighters. He said that perhaps qualified community volunteers could step forward to fill in the necessary slots and avoid overtime. Gerrity said that he had discussed this possibility with former Fire Chief Jason Higginbotham.

Poynter suggested that the FBCC could also consider rescinding the mandatory staffing rule, saying that since 70-80 percent of calls are received during the day, the city might not need 16 firefighters on duty during the night.

Gerrity asked Interim Fire Chief Peter Bergel to speak to Fire Department staffing needs. He said that staffing levels are not just dictated by work volume, but by industry standards. He said that currently the city meets Nassau County standards, but that the city would need to add 12 firefighters to meet national standards, which require 3 firefighters on a truck for each truck on each shift. Bergel also supported utilizing the Telestaff system, currently used by Nassau County, to insure a better allocation of staff. This system addresses the charges of favoritism in assigning overtime.

Interim Fire Chief Peter Bergel addresses Vice Mayor Miller's questions.
Interim Fire Chief Peter Bergel addresses Vice Mayor Miller’s questions.

Miller expressed concern about the city’s not meeting national standards with current staffing. Bergel said he absolutely supports meeting those standards and went on to explain how the department is currently short of meeting them. Miller said that while he has heard firefighters say that the department needs more people previously, “Having the Fire Chief stand up before us and tell us these things concerns me greatly.”

In response to Miller’s request for a written summary of department needs, Bergel said, “I believe that’s been done in the past. … I think at one point we were very close [to meeting the national standard] but as the economy worsened, people go first.”

Bergel reinforced, however, that he believes the Fernandina Beach Fire Department provides top-notch service. He added, “In my opinion, you should have three persons on a fire vehicle, but those don’t come cheap.”

Poynter asked if his budget request for the upcoming fiscal year reflected a move toward meeting national standards. Bergel said it does not. “It meets minimum staffing, maintains the status quo,” he said.

Miller asked why, if we needed such positions, Bergel wasn’t asking for them. Gerrity replied, “Because we have a budget that we have to live with. I don’t mean to be disrespectful. We have to rely on assistance from Nassau County to meet those numbers. That’s why we have mutual aid agreements.” Bergel corrected Gerrity, saying, “We have automatic aid, it’s immediately dispatched. It helps us meet the minimum national standard.”

In response to questions from Commissioner Robin Lentz, Bergel said, “I think we had 12 structural fires this year. I’ll be the first to tell you that we don’t have a lot of fires on this island. The lion’s share of our work has become emergency medical service.”

After 18 minutes of discussion, the budget transfer was approved on a unanimous vote.

City Clerk Caroline Best (l) and Human Resources Director Ashley Metz (r)
City Clerk Caroline Best (l) and Human Resources Director Ashley Metz (r)

Ordinance 2015-16 establishes an updated classification plan for city positions for Fiscal Year 2015-16 (First Reading). City Human Resources Director Ashley Metz explained how the city’s consultant came up with the recommendations before the FBCC, after comparing the city’s classification and pay scales to other similar Northeast Florida communities. Metz noted few changes in the pay scale other than a recommendation to eliminate the city’s lowest pay grade and adjust a few other categories. She said the majority of the changes related to actual positions. Pay grade changes would impact 15 employees to get them to the minimum of the new pay grades. The financial impact would be about $7,300, according to City Manager Gerrity.

City Manager Joe Gerrity
City Manager Joe Gerrity

Commissioner Robin Lentz expressed concern over the study. She said she had thought the study was initiated because of a remark Gerrity had made noting that Zaxby’s starts its employees at $10 per hour. Yet she felt the changes before the FBCC addressed increasing pay for high-level employees. She said that while she did not believe that higher level people were undeserving of pay increases, she did not see benefits going to “the people in the trenches.”  She said that she would like to table this item until a new city manager can review the situation. Commissioner Poynter seconded the motion. Mayor Boner asked if such a motion, passed at a later date could legally be made retroactive to the start of the Fiscal Year. City Attorney Tammi Bach assured the FBCC that such a move would be legal.

The motion to table passed on a 4-1 vote with Commissioner Pat Gass in opposition. Gass said that she did not see that putting off a vote on the ordinance was necessary because she did not see that a new city manager would bring any added insight to the issue.

Ordinance 2015-11: Amelia Park PUD modifications removing the mandatory commercial component, providing for limited commercial uses, and reclassifying the property as Transect T5 for 4 parcels. (First Reading).

Despite city staff’s recommendation to deny the applicant’s request to eliminate a mandatory requirement for commercial development in certain parts of the Amelia Park Planned Unit Development (PUD), the city’s Planning Advisory Board (PAB) approved the request at its May 13, 2015 meeting. Subsequent to that meeting, the applicant submitted a revised plan dated July 2, which has not yet been reviewed by the PAB in a public forum. The applicant asked that page 5 of that submittal be included as Exhibit B. Community Development Director Adrienne Burke advised the FBCC that it could approve or deny the request or remand it to the PAB.

Exhibit B
Exhibit B

Burke advised the FBCC that the applicant—REDUS Florida Land LLC—has worked closely with both city staff and the Amelia Park Neighborhood Association (APNA) during the application process. There have been 15 meetings, including a facilitated town hall-style meeting open to all Amelia Park residents.

Staff’s objection to the change related to the original intent and long-term vision of Amelia Park as a Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND). TNDs are compact developments that are intended to be walkable and include a commercial activity center, different housing types, and different land uses.

The applicant requested relief from the mandatory commercial development, citing independent market analysis and inquiries from prospective purchasers indicating that there is not sufficient anticipated demand for stand-alone commercial development on the subject properties, whereas there is increasing demand for residential properties. The intent of the change is to allow for townhome only development fronting Park Avenue and single-family homes on the remaining portions of the property. The subject property has remained undeveloped since the PUD was established.

Mayor Boner opened public comment, and heard from 6 speakers, only one of whom opposed the change. Proponents indicated that the acceptance of the revised Exhibit B was of critical importance in an approval.

APNA President Carl Ashley
APNA President Carl Ashley

Carl Ashley, President of the APNA, addressed the commission and informed commissioners that the APNA board voted unanimously at its July 20, 2015 meeting which was open to the public to support the change with the July 2 Exhibit B modification. He reported that the APNA has also been working with the applicant on deed restrictions, not covered in this zoning change. He reported that public involvement has been ongoing since December 2014. The board has also considered TND consultant recommendation. The parcels are not economically viable as commercial property, since they have been on the market as such for 18 years. He said that because of the small scale of the Amelia Park TND, they cannot be compared to large TNDs such as Seaside or Celebration, FL.

Theresa Prince, the APNA attorney, reassured the FBCC that during the process the APNA board had listened to opponents of the plan and made adjustments in some cases. All Amelia Park residents who voiced concerns have been heard.

Applicant's representative E. Owen McCuller, Jr.
Applicant’s representative E. Owen McCuller, Jr.

Owen McCuller, Jr. of the firm Smith Hulsey & Busey represented the applicant. He agreed with previous speakers, stressing that language could not be changed at this point without the application being withdrawn. He cited the vacancy rate for commercial property in the surrounding area and a demand for residential in Amelia Park. He said that if the property remains commercial, the price will need to be depressed, possibly attracting low end commercial, which the residents do not want.

Three additional speakers addressed the FBCC, one in opposition and two in support.

After 40 minutes of discussion and input, the FBCC voted unanimously to approve the item on first reading, with the inclusion of the July revision (Exhibit B).

Ordinance 2015-17: Wetlands policy (First Reading). At a workshop on March 18, 2015 the FBCC directed the change to Policy 5.08.02 to remove the requirement to create a categorization system of wetlands and retain the current policies; and at that same workshop, the FBCC re-emphasized the importance of wetland preservation to the community. The change coming before the FBCC contained a modified Comprehensive Plan definition of “net density” that would uphold the city’s wetlands preservation requirements by allowing for the calculation of density to include wetlands and transitional wetlands and allow that density to be applied to uplands on the entire property. This change would not increase a site’s overall density, but would allow property owners with wetlands to have more flexibility and creativity while adhering to the city’s wetland preservation requirement.

Two speakers objected to the change, claiming that it was confusing. City manager Joe Gerrity tried to simplify the issue. He said, “If you have one acre of land zoned R-2, you are allowed to put 8 residences on that land. If half of it is upland, you are currently allowed to put 4 units on that acre. With the change, you could build 8 units on the uplands. In a way, this is an incentive to preserve wetlands.”

City Clerk Caroline Best (l) and Community Development Director Adrienne Burke (r)
City Clerk Caroline Best (l) and Community Development Director Adrienne Burke (r)

Community Development Director Adrienne Burke stressed that development would be required to adhere to all other city regulations regarding setbacks, provision of parking, etc. Following discussion, the FBCC voted unanimously to approve the item.




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Chett Lyncker
Chett Lyncker (@guest_40927)
7 years ago

The “anonamoly” that is mentioned in the Fire Department discussion, is anything but! An administrative position for around 80k was filled and 3-4 new ocean rescue ” lieutenants” or some title to that effect were created and filled without any internal or external advertising. Which were all filled with existing employees, therefore they are paid at an overtime rate due to FLSA regulations. It should be noted that these positions were never discussed with the Union or all Fire Department members whatsoever. Again this is the result of assigning the wolf to fix the hen house, no names mentioned since I’ve already been investigated by the FDLE on erroneous charges. The FBCC is, and I say this hopefully, ignorant to what is being done to “fix” the FD issues….they are not fixed, simply swept under the giant rug as is everything else! If there are extra overtime monies needed above the reasons that I have mentioned above then they are most likely contributed to the current issues and many dedicated public servants leaving to serve other municipalities where they are treated fairly by their elected and appointed officials!

Just an opinion from a City Resident!

Tommy Spicer
Tommy Spicer (@guest_40935)
7 years ago

With all the factual information that has been presented over the last year at city commission meetings and emails, printed in the media to the commissioners, the CM and commissioner Pat Gass is still protecting two individuals that don’t quality as fire chiefs! Chief Dan Hanes and Joe Hernandez as deputy chief with over 50 years experience between the both of them, set up a great command structure and filled those positions with very qualified individuals! As the union president stated, the problem has not been fixed! You have one individual, sitting in the deputy’s chief’s position conducting lifeguard duties at $60k a year. The fire department
has had two previous employees doing the job as life guard supervisor for less than half the cost, and very qualified(Colleen Troller and Dominica Miller). The list goes on. I encourage anyone who has concerns to ask the firemen-///In closing I encourage everyone to do a PPR on all exit interviews, job qualifications, the two individuals education as deputy chief(s) to qualify for the position they hold and previously held, investigations, email between Commissioner(s) and John White, and any documation pertaining to the fire department, etc. Chief Bergel was appointed by the CM to settle the fire department–he’s a very knowledgeable and respected fire chief. He was only placed in the position due to the turmoil of the two inexpenced individuals sitting in a deputy’s chief position. Why the city CM did not place him as chief when he was first hired instead of a deputy is very confusing, or maybe again he was trying to protect the two inexpenced individuals holding the top positions?

Scott Sernaker
Scott Sernaker (@guest_40937)
7 years ago

Why is there a need to allow additional development based on wetlands? It seems to me that anyone who purchased wetlands in Florida over the past century or so knew what they were getting into, and Federal laws in regards to wetlands have been in effect for decades. I guess the swamp owners will now get the last laugh.

Furthermore, to preserve the wetlands, we’re now allowing a higher population density surrounding them; thus negatively impacting wildlife and increasing the chemical runoff coming from the neighboring uplands. Wildlife areas generally need a lower (human) population area as a buffer. From a preservation standpoint, this doesn’t make sense.

With established neighborhoods, it appears that we’ve now created incentive for developers to buy up drainage areas, so that they can increase the housing density on neighboring property (knock down a house on a good sized lot neighboring drainage and build 4-5). I’m also concerned with the impact this could have when coupled with the proposed zoning changes to 8th street. Having a limit of 30 housing units per acre becomes pretty meaningless when a large wetland area can be included.

Our area is known for its natural beauty. It’s why people want to live here, and it’s primarily what attracts tourists to our area. There comes a point with development where that appeal no longer exists. I’m not completely against development, but there need to be limits.

Dave Lott
Dave Lott (@guest_40980)
7 years ago
Reply to  Scott Sernaker

Excellent points Scott. Contact the Commissioners and get them to reconsider since this was only the first reading.

Steven Crounse
Steven Crounse (@guest_41183)
7 years ago
Reply to  Dave Lott

I think this whole issue of protecting wetlands came to a head a couple months ago when a Bank in Georgia got title to 14 acres of land on 14th st with half being in the City and half in the County with a Natural Spring and wetlands. The property had been permitted for 51 units by the previous owner, but the Bank wanted to build 200 unites. Of course the Bank, through there lawyer threatened to take the City to Court if they didn’t get their way. Sounds like the Bank will be able to put twice the unites on the up land property, and corrupt the wetlands twice as fast.? Did the City win?

Chett Lyncker
Chett Lyncker (@guest_40973)
7 years ago

Mr. Spicer is correct, and reminded me that I have not given due credit to Chief Bergel. I have worked closely with him since he had been with the department. Although he may have been hired under the premise of “fixing” the issues, which I believe he was originally informed was a few trouble makers amongst the ranks. In my opinion he has been exposed to the truth and has been fair and easy to work for. Again, we are professionals and will extend a warm welcome and respect to the new Chief. Unfortunately, all the players that are the source of the turmoil are protected and costing the City upwards of 500k in salaries alone. The fact that we have commissions and citizens speaking out about reducing staffing or the replacing with unqualified personnel is not only sad retribution but also shows how much they care about us, the citizens of this City!

Please do inquire about any of these issues, the truth is right under the rug!

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