Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
March 5, 2015 10:04 a.m.
March came in like a lion Tuesday night as the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) spent their first of three meeting hours in a Special Meeting charting the city’s future work plan. City Manager Joe Gerrity synthesized the results of the FBCC’s recent goal setting retreat into nine specific items:
While commissioners initially voiced tentative agreement with the summary there was no unanimity over how to pay for the projects. Discussion produced some changes. Consensus was to stop moving forward on plans to develop the Lot B portion of the Waterfront Park as a stand-alone project for now. Rather the FBCC wanted to cost out the entire park instead. Also, commissioners asked that the skate park be included in the current planning effort underway for the Parks & Recreation Master Plan, as opposed to being considered as a separate high priority capital improvement project.
After a robust exchange of views, dominated by Commissioners Tim Poynter and Pat Gass who took diametrically opposed positions, the FBCC directed City Manager Joe Gerrity to come back at the next meeting with a proposal for a railroad engineering consultant to develop hard costs for constructing Quiet Zones and to update cost figures for constructing all parts of the proposed Waterfront Park. City Attorney Bach will bring back funding options as well.
Despite unknowns with respect to costs, the four commissioners who attended the earlier goals retreat appeared committed taking action and capitalizing on $160K of engineering work already completed with respect to opening the Alachua crossing. The permit for that project had been set to expire at the end of February, but the city has received verbal assurances from FDOT that the request for an extension has been approved. Commissioner Pat Gass did not attend the earlier meeting due to illness.
City Manager Joe Gerrity began the meeting by informing commissioners that the city had held a meeting with representatives of CSX and First Coast Railroad earlier in the day to discuss several issues of mutual concern. At Poynter’s suggestion, the discussion began with railroad Quiet Zones, and Gerrity deferred to Deputy City Manager Marshall McCrary. McCrary said that nothing new had come from the CSX meeting, other than a reinforcement that the existing rail crossings are highly constrained by space limitations, meaning that standardized safety measures to create Quiet Zones would not work for the existing Front Street crossings. McCrary said that the city would need to develop alternative safety measures and then determine if they were sufficient for the railroad’s needs. McCrary added that the city would need to do more research and determine costs for alternative measures such as wayside horns, which he believed were a more cost effective measure and partial quiet zones. He reiterated railroad concerns over what today is unfettered access to the railroad tracks by downtown pedestrians. He said, “I don’t know for sure that we can get a Quiet Zone. I do know that it will be costly and will take some time to do that.”
Commissioner Tim Poynter said, “It seems like whatever we do, we are going to need some type of barrier along the tracks for the railroad and the park. That was on the original waterfront park plan. We just keep walking away from ideas that we have already vetted. We’ve talked about Quiet Zones for quite some time – even the previous commission – and we don’t seem to have much in the way of answers for anything. We don’t have costs on alternatives, I don’t know what’s acceptable to the railroad …”
McCrary responded, “When we start looking at alternative safety measures, that’s out of the box, and it’s up to us to design something and to work with the railroad operator to find something that might be satisfactory. [The railroads] are under no obligation to accept those alternatives.”
Mayor Ed Boner asked for clarification about the earlier plan to open the Alachua Street rail crossing. McCrary replied that the railroad was fine with that plan. Poynter added that the plan at that time was to install the equipment that would make that crossing in compliance with Quiet Zone requirements, should such a project be pursued.
Vice Mayor Johnny Miller, Mayor Boner and McCrary discussed Quiet Zone requirements that would need to be in place along a half mile of track, to include all downtown rail crossings.
Gerrity interjected that in discussions with both CSX and First Coast Railroad, the railroads’ position was that existing conditions are close to unacceptable. Boner said that if the city is looking toward even more waterfront park activity that will draw more pedestrians downtown, the railroads’ concerns over safety will increase.
An exasperated Poynter said, “With all due respect, we’ve been talking about this since I was on the commission the first time. This isn’t new. This is why the waterfront park plan incorporated all those safety measures.”
McCrary agreed that anything that the city could do to improve safety would be well received by the railroads. The plan for developing the Waterfront Park Lot B calls for relocating part of Front Street westward to provide more clearance between pedestrians and the tracks.
Poynter said, “The question is: ‘Does this commission have the will and the fortitude to move forward with the plan?’ This has been talked about for so long, before I moved here, probably for 20-30 years.”
Boner said that the question relates to cost, and Gerrity agreed that was the next step. He said that there are firms that specialize in railroad engineering, that the city needs to make contact with one to get someone on board to help the city determine what is needed and what it would cost.
Commissioners agreed on the need for engineering, but Poynter reminded them that the engineering for the Alachua crossing had already been done, as well as city utility work in preparation for the opening.
Boner stressed that he was supportive of the Quiet Zone, but he wanted to make sure that if something “exotic” was required everyone understood the needs and the costs. Poynter agreed, saying that he has been trying to get answers for years on what it will cost. “I’ve got an idea,” he said. “Let’s find out!”
Commissioner Gass asked, “Are we acting or just discussing? Are we sitting as the Community Redevelopment Agency? Because all these things are happening in the [Community Redevelopment Area], so they would be financing these things. Are we just doing the ground work so that when they get the money they can do these things?”
Poynter responded. “Look, if your goal here is to not do anything until the CRA has money, then we can forget all these things right now.”
Gass pressed on. “This is the commission that is not going to undo everything that everyone else has done? So we can undo it and redo it again?’
Poynter said, “I haven’t seen anything done when it comes to the CRA.”
Gass, citing the previous commission’s actions to reset the CRA base year and extend the length of the CRA’s existence from 20 to 40 years, said, “That’s because we have 40 years waiting for the money to come. That’s what everyone wanted, that’s what the [CRA Advisory Board] wanted. We’ve done it, we’re doing it, we’re waiting.”
Alachua Rail Crossing
Gerrity, McCrary and Poynter engaged in discussion of the cost for opening the Alachua Street crossing. While McCrary remembered it as $950K, Poynter said he remembered it as $750K, which included the Quiet Zone compliant Alachua crossing and improving the Ash and Centre Street crossings.
Gerrity told the commission that city staff has taken this project as far as they can, and that the next step is to bring in outside expertise.
Gass asked, “When we get the updated figures, so how are we going to pay for the project? Are we going to do special assessments to pay for it? What’s your mechanism for paying for it?”
Commissioner Robin Lentz, the FBCC liaison to the CRA Advisory Board (CRAAB), reminded commissioners that the CRA has no funds and that the city needs to make an investment to help get CRA development off the ground. She reinforced that these recommendations have also been voiced by the CRAAB.
Gass asked if the city had not already made such investment. Gerrity and Poynter remembered that there had been general fund money initially transferred to the CRA, but that it was returned to the general fund to help with the previous years’ budgets.
Lentz said, “I’m a firm believer that sometimes it takes a little money to make a little money. We need to decide as five commissioners ‘do we support spending money on this?’ I don’t know yet. Because if things were redeveloped in that area, money that would come back to us in property taxes, people attracted to spend money at our small businesses, everybody would benefit. I’m a baseball fan: if you build it, they will come. In this case, if you rebuild it, add some stuff and make it nice. I think we need to decide if this is what we are asking staff to do.”
Gass said, “I’m not opposed to doing any of this. I’m not opposed to finding out how much it will cost. If I’m opposed to anything, it’s waiting until the eleventh hour—once you’ve got everybody all hyped up and excited—to find out we can’t afford to do it. So in the process of all this, we need to be discussing the funding source. If it is going to be a special assessment for those people who will be getting all the benefit, or millage rate increase, or maxing out the franchise fees—how are you going to pay for it? With the unfunded liability of pensions, it’s not a good time to be borrowing money.”
Poynter used this opening to ask city comptroller Patti Clifford to share information with the commissioners about a recent bond rate quote to the city. Clifford indicated that earlier in the day the city had been quoted 2.19 percent on a utility bond. That caused Poynter to opine that this is the best time to be borrowing money.
Gass responded, “But how are we going to pay it back?”
Poynter and Gass went back and forth in an intense exchange lasting considerable time during which each articulated distinct philosophies and points of view regarding the role of government.
Poynter explained that the low baseline reset in the CRA would allow the city to reap more income from taxes paid on future development. That money would be reinvested in the CRA to complete public projects, showing that the city is willing to invest in itself. He said that using Gass’ pay-as-you-go approach conflicted with her goal of returning dollars to taxpayers, because cities are not allowed to just accumulate excess tax dollars to spend on future projects.
Gass continued to maintain that by sequestering tax money in the CRA area, the general fund was being deprived of that ad valorem tax money for 40 years. She suggested that Poynter was “all about borrowing money.” She said that her approach simply meant that people needed to be more patient in expecting to see projects reach fruition.
Lentz turned to Gass and said, “But that means I get to live here for 20 years and see nothing done.” Gass replied, “But your children get to pay for it [if you borrow money today].” Lentz said, “By starting now we all get to share in the cost and the enjoyment.”
Vice Mayor Johnny Miller, in commenting about the back and forth between Poynter and Gass, said, “I’m getting ready to make popcorn. We are looking at the one, 3 and 5-year plans with respect to the waterfront park. But we don’t see anything about developing long-term housing, the Standard Marine Building.”
Gerrity said, “We look toward the Year One goals as the catalyst to making that happen.”
Poynter reminded the commissioners that the city does not own the CRA property. He said, “What we need to show some potential developer is that we care enough about the area that we will do some spending. When we do investment spending, then they do investment spending.” He acknowledged, “Commissioner Gass has difficulty with what I say. Fortunately, with 3 votes we can move forward.”
Gass quipped, “I can count.”
“What I am suggesting to this commission is that one, we are going to have to do some investment spending and if we don’t do that we are not going to have these other things potentially happen. In my opinion, I have talked with enough developers who have said, ‘You guys, last time you said you were going to do it and then a new commission came in, and then they stopped it and gave back the money. So now, we just don’t want to hear it any more. We want to see improvements done before we come in and spend our money.’ That’s what I believe this commission actually needs to do now. And when you are worrying about paying this off, I agree with you. But for whatever reason, your suggestion is that we should spend 100 percent for the job now so that no one tomorrow should have to share in those costs. Just today’s taxpayers should have to pay for 100 percent, so no one else has to pay as they move in. Is that what you are suggesting?”
Gass said, “Yes, because it deteriorates and all those coming behind us get to do maintenance and replacement. And it will be ongoing for the end of time. Just as we have to fix our storm water, maintain our sewer and our buildings. That’s what our children can pay for, that’s what the new people will be paying for. But let’s borrow the money, Tim; let’s borrow the money after we all agree on the funding source for paying it back. I for one am in favor of setting up a special assessment. Those that are going to enjoy it, are going to pay for it.” She cited different areas of the city that she felt would not benefit from the proposed improvements.
Waterfront Park Differences
Commissioner Lentz sharply disagreed. She said that although she did not live downtown, she envisioned taking her children with her to the waterfront park.
Mayor Boner also weighed in. I understand what you are saying,” he said, “but what about the people who live near the Greenway, who benefit most from that park, or those who live along the beach and benefit most from beach renourishment? The only objection I have is that I don’t know how much Quiet Zones cost and I don’t know how much cost goes into maintenance. I don’t have an issue with opening Alachua; I’d like to get updated numbers. I’ve talked with the potential developer or his agent and know that his concerns have to do with the Quiet Zones and opening Alachua for water access. Four of us have worked downtown. We know that if we have a festival or anything that draws people to Centre Street the side streets get really congested. If you opened Alachua, It would allow you to shut down parts of Centre Street and still allow traffic to circulate downtown.”
Gass asked if anyone had actually spoken to Richard Goodsell, the major property owner in the CRA, or just to his agent. When two commissioners, the city manager and the city attorney indicated they had, she said, “That’s good. I was beginning to wonder.” Boner replied, “He is not a fictional character.” Boner went on to express his opinion that unless the city makes an initial investment, the property will probably remain undeveloped for ten years.
Mayor Wraps Up
Boner suggested that the next steps included getting numbers for loans, clarifying what the city would be able to do with respect to building Quiet Zones, and trying to come up with a better budget to reflect the first year’s goals. When Miller asked Gerrity if he was clear on direction, Gerrity replied, “I know what we need.” Lentz asked him to bring forward some options and Gerrity responded, “Certainly.”
City Attorney Bach reminded commissioners that based on their earlier action she had prepared an RFP that was almost ready to be issues on moving forward with the B Lot of the Waterfront Park. She asked for clarification as to whether the commission was withdrawing that in favor of proceeding with the entire waterfront park. Boner said that the FBCC needs to know the total cost of the project now because loan rates are low, and the city might opt to take out a line of credit from which it could draw to do park phases over a period of years.
Poynter agreed, adding, “We had a plan to do the waterfront. It was costed out. We need to decide whether we are going to do it or not. I’m not for separating out the Parking Lot B portion, because if we do that we might have to rip it up as we proceed to complete the entire park. You know what? This community deserves more than a piecemeal waterfront in my opinion.”
Mayor Boner concluded commission discussion. He said, “The consensus is to move ahead on obtaining costs to do the entire waterfront in today’s dollars and then we can discuss it at a future meeting.”
Planning Advisory Board Chair Len Kreger said that he was amazed that funding storm water projects had not been given a higher priority during the goal setting session, since a previous figure of $17M had been cited as the cost to fix all the storm water problems of the city. He allowed that some of that work would need to be done in the CRA. He advised the city to be careful in dealing with the county over the creation of a special tax district to fund beach renourishment. He also warned about the seriousness of infrastructure needs.
Eric Bartelt, a strong advocate for moving forward with Waterfront Park Lot B proposals immediately, told commissioners that the overall waterfront park plan had always intended to begin with what is today Parking Lot B. He said that city Utilities Department Director John Mandrick had advised that any repaving involved would not be done until the entire park was completed, so any work done in Parking Lot B would not need to be torn up as park development proceeded. He also took issue with Gerrity’s claim that half the cost of the Parking Lot B park would be paid from the general fund, because by his calculations almost all of the funding would come from Parks and Recreation Impact fees. Bartelt agreed with the need to have the engineering done first.
Architect Randy Rice expressed his concern that the planned performance venue deck for the existing Marina Welcome Center building has “morphed” into a deck for boaters. He said that citizen input had always reflected the need to have some performance venue in the Lot B location.
CRAAB Member Lou Goldman reminded commissioners that the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) associated with the CRA is the best financing mechanism the city has ever had. It basically allows the county money to be used for city improvements. Improvements built in the CRA give value to undeveloped property, he said, adding that the improved value will guarantee even more tax revenues as more development occurs.
While the discussion became intense at times, because both Poynter and Gass were committed to their lines of reasoning, there were moments of humor. However, the discussion brought out significant differences in the approach to funding city capital improvements, probably to be continued at future meetings. Miller reminded commissioners during the meeting that should they decide to borrow money to advance these goals, it was their job to sell the voters on the need for the projects and the means to pay for them.
Mayor Boner adjourned the meeting at 5:20 p.m. to allow a brief break between meetings. During that break, Commissioner Poynter approached Commissioner Gass to reinforce that his differences with her were not personal, but based in conflicting philosophies. She thanked him.
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.