Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
By the time Mayor Sarah Pelican gaveled the February 19, 2013 regular meeting of the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) to order, there was standing room only in the City Hall commission meeting chamber. What drew such an unusually large crowd was agenda item 7.2: Resolution 2013-23, approving repayment of the remaining portion of the city of Fernandina Beach Capital Improvement Revenue Note, Series 2011 (Forward Fernandina Revenue Note). This item had been placed on the agenda by newly elected commissioner Pat Gass, an open opponent of public borrowing.
Gass moved approval of the motion and was quickly seconded by Vice Mayor Charlie Corbett. Corbett then immediately asked to amend the motion to exclude the remainder of unspent money needed to honor the city’s commitment to support the renovation and expansion of the existing library facility. That commitment had been approved but not funded on a 3-2 vote at the February 5, 2013 FBCC meeting. Gass accepted the amendment with no question or discussion. City Attorney Tammi Bach stated the revised motion, which decreased the amount to be repaid by $464, 675 to slightly over one million dollars.
Commissioner Ed Boner spoke first, asking commissioners to delay returning the money until they could discuss possibly using this money to offset other capital improvement expenses, thereby relieving some of the strain on the city budget general fund. Commissioner Arlene Filkoff also raised objections to returning the money now, citing a letter that the city had just received from developer Richard Goodsell laying out city improvements he would require before proceeding with a major downtown development. Filkoff said Goodsell had already gone through permitting for his project. Boner agreed that he would like to hear Goodsell’s presentation before voting to return borrowed funds.
Filkoff asked commissioners to remember the difficult discussions over budget at the recent workshop. She said that there was no money in the general fund to support infrastructure improvements needed for development in the Community Redevelopment Area (CRA), and if the Forward Fernandina money that had been earmarked for such projects was returned, she did not know where the city would find money.Corbett, who had made previous, unsuccessful attempts to return the Forward Fernandina loan over the past year, expressed his frustration that the CRA hasn’t generated any revenue in 2 years, and the loan money continues to cost the city interest. He said that the city has finally got the library project moving, and 60% of the engineering work has been done for the Front Street infrastructure improvements.
There followed some discussion over the timing of Goodsell’s letter, which had just been received that afternoon. Gass said that even Goodsell stated that he was not sure if the city or the market was ready yet for his project. Filkoff responded that Goodsell implied that he would like to address the FBCC at a workshop. Gass declared, “I don’t want it on the backs of the taxpayer to determine business success.”
Boner, a real estate professional, reminded commissioners that while residential real estate has made a slight rebound since the 2007 market drop, commercial real estate is just beginning to rebound. He understood that in a down market Goodsell and other developers might not have been willing to move ahead with projects. He said that before he could support returning funds he wanted to hear from Goodsell. He also wanted to talk with Nassau County Tax Appraiser Michael Hickox to determine if city assessments are dropping significantly. He asked, “Could we partner with the Port on some of these projects?” He expressed fear that by returning the money the FBCC was “giving away all our options.” He added, “Know what you’re giving up before you give it up.”
Mayor Pelican weighed in on the discussion. She said, “I agree with Pat Gass. Why did it take him [Goodsell] this long to come up with this ‘silver bullet’? This is a matter of needs versus wants. We need to address infrastructure needs and issues around town before we look at this.”
Corbett seemed poised to reconsider immediate action, asking, “How long would we postpone this action? We need to vote the library up or down tonight.” Filkoff suggested that the FBCC approve the library funding and table the remainder until the FBCC has an opportunity to hear from Goodsell. Gass commented, “The nicest thing I can say is no, thank you.”
At that point the FBCC decided to take public comments.
While normally citizen comments are limited by a timer to 3 minutes, the first speaker, former city commissioner Dale Deas was neither timed nor cut off by Mayor Pelican. This set the precedent for future speakers. Deas spoke in support of the motion for more than 5 minutes and appeared to ramble at times, resulting in noticeable grumbling in the audience. He claimed, among other things, that the problem in the last 3 years has been overspending. “We have got to settle down,” he said. “No capital improvements until the infrastructure gets under control.” With respect to the library, he said, “I’m tired of running that damn horse. Give it to ‘em for a dollar a year.” Only one additional speaker, Andy Curtin, supported returning the loan. He echoed Pelican’s comment about wants versus needs.
Eleven other speakers spoke against the resolution to return money at this time. Several speakers asked for workshops and more public discussion over the best ways to spend the remaining funds. Local downtown businesswoman Joan Bean said, “I thought this was all done. If you don’t have money [in the budget] now to do these things, when will we get it? You need to take the least bad step and go ahead [with the Forward Fernandina projects]. Take a leap of faith and spend the money as intended.”
Local architect Randy Rice supported moving forward with the waterfront park as a means to increase the appeal of the downtown as a place to visit and invest. He said, “If we do the right thing, the pie [general fund revenues] will get bigger. We can create a gateway to the city from the water.” He drew an analogy between designing a house and the waterfront. “Right now it looks like you have put the washer and dryer in the foyer.” Speakers Tony McAdoo and John Megna also stressed the importance of downtown and parks.
Bob Ramshaw, Vice President of the Historic Downtown Merchants Association (HDMA), reaffirmed his organization’s commitment to the library project and other Forward Fernandina projects. He highlighted the need for the railroad quiet zone, a need he experiences regularly as manager of the Downtown Hampton Inn and Suites.
HDMA President Scott Moore spoke on behalf of the CRA Advisory Committee, asking that the FBCC delay any vote to return funds until the committee could meet with the FBCC in a workshop to go over the status, needs and future direction of the CRA.
Speakers Diane Card and Tony Crawford spoke on the importance of investing in the future, citing the special needs to nurture children. Crawford advised the commissioners to work out their differences in a workshop, but that capital improvement is investment – “a bullet we need to bite to move forward.” “Don’t blow it!” he cautioned them.
Clinch Kavanaugh reminded the FBCC that the nation was born in debt and that workshops are the way to decide the best use for the borrowed funds.
Robin Lentz appealed to commissioner Corbett by sharing his impatience over the failure to move on the projects sooner. But she reminded the FBCC that unlike a small business, the city is much more complex and cannot move as quickly.
Sam Lane disagreed with Pelican’s statement on wants versus needs. He reminded the FBCC that the city is competing with every other Florida coastal city for both investors and tourism. He said that now is absolutely the time to invest to give Fernandina Beach an edge in the competition.
One other speaker, Mario Manganaro, claimed the biggest problem downtown is parking, which has been ignored for 10 years.
Following 45 minutes of public input, City Attorney Bach advised the FBCC that they could vote the current motion up or down. If they voted it down, they could look toward other actions, such as approving funding for the library and postponing further discussion on return of the other unspent funds pending the scheduling of workshops.
A frustrated Gass said that further discussion of the borrowed funds would only increase the divide among citizens because people would bring different priorities to the workshops. This comment led to some grousing in the audience, including one comment overheard, “That’s what democracy is, Toots!”
When the motion was read back, a hush fell over the audience as they listened for the results of the roll call vote. In favor: Gass, Corbett and Pelican. Opposed: Boner and Filkoff. Members of the audience gasped as Corbett voted, recognizing that he had been their last hope of putting off the return of funds to a future date.
Some in the audience hoped for a motion to reconsider at the following meeting.
But City Manager Joe Gerrity, who did not speak during the commission’s discussion, was reported to have said that the money would be returned the next day.
February 20, 2013 12:05 p.m.