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