Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
About a dozen people attended the Special Meeting of the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) on September 3, 2013 for the first of two public hearings on the proposed millage rates and budget for FY 2013-14. While there was no public comment on the proposed rates, commissioners received a collective earful from several concerned citizens regarding the FBCC’s earlier decision not to fund local non-profit social service agencies. Although Commissioner Ed Boner’s motion to restore the $25,000 originally proposed in the budget for this purpose failed on a 2-2 vote (Mayor Sarah Pelican and Commissioner Pat Gass opposed; Vice Mayor Charlie Corbett was not present), later in the meeting a new motion was proposed by Commissioner Arlene Filkoff to lower the amount to $10,000 and postpone specific agency allocations to another meeting. That motion passed on a 3-1 vote, with Pelican joining Boner and Filkoff in the majority.
FY 2013-14 Property Tax Millage Rate
Mayor Pelican began the meeting by reading the Truth In Millage Statement (TRIM) as required by Chapter 200.065(4)(d) Florida Statutes:
- The taxing authority levying this property tax is the City Commission of the City of Fernandina Beach.
- The rolled back rate is 6.1800 mills per $1,000 of assessed value.
- The percentage increase is 1.69% over the rollback millage rate.
- The operating millage rate to be levied is 6.2844 mills per $1,000 of assessed value.
The voter debt millage rate is .2236.
There was no public comment or commission discussion regarding the proposed rate. There will be a second public hearing on this matter and the proposed city budget on September 17, 2013. The FBCC, which adopts the budget by resolution, will then vote to formally adopt the millage rates and budget for the next fiscal year that begins October 1, 2013.
Proposed FY 2013-14 City Budget
The only element of the city’s proposed budget that drew public input was the elimination of funds to non-profit social service agencies that serve the community. During earlier budget discussions, a majority of the FBCC (Corbett, Gass and Pelican) removed such funding from the FY 2013-14 budget citing concerns over “double dipping,” since many of these agencies also receive city support via Nassau County funding. Commissioners Gass and Pelican also cited their closely held beliefs that charitable giving is up to individual citizens, not local government. Commissioners Ed Boner and Arlene Filkoff continued to support funding, even at a reduced level, to continue to show support for those organizations that take care of the neediest in the community. Agencies appearing before the FBCC seeking funds at an earlier meeting emphasized the importance of local government support to their grant applications for state and private assistance in which local support is matched sometimes at a 10:1 rate.
The public speaks
Local resident Paul Barnes was the first to speak, asking the FBCC to restore grant funding to Starting Point to help the community deal with mental health issues. He cited personal experience with a family member who had attempted suicide multiple times and who is now hospitalized. “Were it not for the help of Starting Point and the people who work there,” he said, “he would not be here today.” He read from an article about the chess player Bobby Fischer, who was hospitalized at 39 for the rest of his life due to mental illness: “Mental illness … cuts a swath through the community regardless of ethnicity, educational degrees or professional accomplishments. It is estimated that 15% of the American population suffers from some sort of mental illness or disability to the extent that they require professional care. I would urge you to continue supporting community mental health organizations to the degree that you have in the past.”
Tony Crawford, an outspoken critic of the FBCC’s defunding of social service grants, spoke next. “I’ve spoken to you in the past about issues,” he said. “This isn’t an issue. I personally believe this is a shameless, defiant act by a couple of people who are holding their breath and stopping [funding of social service organizations]. … I’ve heard about how much the county gives to these organizations. I do not live in the county and live in the city because of what the city stands for.” After ascertaining that there are approximately 8,500 taxpayers in the city, he added, “ If we do the math, its $3 per year per taxpayer to show that the city is willing to care about these organizations [i.e., restoring the $25,000 cut]. You were hired to do the bidding of the people, not just those who worked on your campaigns. I would almost bet my first born that if you took a poll to ask people if is worth $3 per year to support these agencies, they would agree.”
As Crawford’s time expired he asked commissioners if anyone had followed up on a suggestion he made a year ago to work with State Representative Janet Adkins to explore a state level initiative adding a dollar tax to each hotel room night to provide an added source of income to the city. Crawford seemed to suggest that this idea would need endorsement from a city representative before it could be taken further than his initial discussions. This idea, he stressed, would be separate and distinct distinct from Tourism Development Council bed tax. After a pause, Mayor Pelican said she would contact Adkins about this idea. Crawford claimed that implementation of such a program at the state level could net the city $350,000-400,000 annually.
Laureen Pagel, CEO of Starting Point Behavioral Healthcare, expressed a certain amount of irony on the amount of time the FBCC has spent discussing concerns over the city golf course. “I’m looking around the room,” she said, “and I don’t see as many people concerned about this matter as they were about the golf course. Maybe I need to move my agency to a golf course. The room should be filled with people, including the people we serve. But the people that we serve don’t have transportation, they are too ill, or they don’t want to break their anonymity. But my colleagues and I need to do a better job of getting advocates out in front of you so that you can see the people we are representing. I commit to do this next budget cycle.” She shared with the FBCC her communication with Nassau County Budget Officer Shanea Jones regarding the source of money that the county dispenses to non-profit agencies. She cited, in addition to ad valorem taxes, bank interest, revenue sharing, sales tax and other sources. Pagel said that according to Jones, it is impossible to see how much was paid into this fund from the amount contributed by city residents. Pagel said, “Mostly, we need people here to stand up and say this is important to us; this is important to me.”
Judith Harris Pappas referenced her email to commissioners on this issue. “I just want to make sure that Mr. Boner said that it is 25 cents per month [a reference to an earlier statement that restoration of the $25,000 would amount to about $3 per year or 25 cents per month for the average taxpayer in the city]. I was able to purchase Meals On Wheels when I was recovering from surgery. That’s the kind of service we get in this community. You want to take away this type of service from people who can’t afford to pay. Don’t even consider taking that away. I don’t think they have come up with a word yet to describe how horrendous this would be. I’ve been living here 10 years, and that’s the worst idea that I’ve heard in that 10 years.”
Catherine Valera, a volunteer with the Nassau County Council on Aging (COA), said that although the COA assists many needy people, it also assists retirees of means to stay connected with others. Because the community has a large number of retirees, she claimed that cuts to such services lend to a bad perception of the city.
Commissioner Filkoff asked process questions relating to the budget approval process. Comptroller Patti Clifford explained that changes could be made before the budget is published for the second hearing on September 17. City Manager Joe Gerrity explained that the $25,000 no longer exists per se because $15,000 of that amount was reprogrammed to purchase a bus for the Parks and Recreation Department. The unallocated $10,000 currently resides in the reserve contingency fund. In response to a question from Commissioner Boner, Filkoff replied that she was not interested in making a change to the millage or the total budget, but that she wanted to resurface $25,000 to be given to the non-profits. She said that the city would be doing harm by removing funding support given in the past. “It’s ironic,” she said, “that the day after we removed their funding, the Council on Aging was called in to assist people displaced by an apartment fire. What are we doing to the community as a whole? If in effect we do not line item $25,000 for the non-profits, I will not be able to support this budget. It’s one thing to talk about the county paying and the idea that city people pay twice. I don’t think that 25 cents a month is a huge amount to pay. Are we supportive or not? Withdrawing all funding support would be a huge change.”
Boner agreed with Filkoff, calling additional attention to the individual contributions of volunteer hours and services that the city provides. He again stressed the multiplier effect of contributed funds that are eligible for matching grants. “Is anyone else here interested in revisiting this topic, other than Arlene and myself?” he asked Gass and Pelican.
Pelican said, “Again, I responded [last meeting] with my numbers. Obviously some people think we should be paying twice.”
Gass differentiated community support from municipality support. She said she disagrees that the community does not support the social service non-profits. “We need to do more individually,” she said, “but I do not believe that government does a better job than intelligent individuals. Please put your money where you believe it does the most good.” A groan could be heard from the audience. Gass responded, “I know you don’t agree with me, but that is my position.”
Judith Harris Pappas returned to the podium. “Ms. Gass, it was explained to me by the pastor of my church that when an agency fills out grant paperwork, they need to check a box to indicate city support. If that box can’t be checked, the agency not only loses money from you, but also will lose from potential matches. They would have to report: no support from community. People can give what they want personally. That’s a completely separate issue.” Boner tried a different tack to win support. “If you take the $25,000 [out of the budget], it’s gone. But by losing matching funds, the value of volunteer hours contributed, etc., you might be losing $200-400K. You might save $25K but lose a lot more by not contributing. You may do a better good by contributing than not.”
Crawford and Gass spar
Tony Crawford returned to the podium and said, “I’m hearing a lot of personal views up here.”
Gass retorted with a chuckle, “We too are hearing a lot of personal views.”
Crawford raised his voice, continuing, “You’ve heard from people here, phone calls and emails. You have a responsibility to represent the people, not dominate it with your personal views. It’s not your job to tell us what to do with our money.”
“Amen,” Gass replied with a laugh.
Assuming a more intense stance Crawford leaned forward and stated, “It’s our job to tell you what to do with our money. Amen. A lot of people are saying it is shameful and disgraceful having to bring this up again for $3 per year per taxpayer. When you look at the money you have wasted, $3 per person per year is not even worth your time. I have not heard one person come in to say it’s a good idea to make these cuts – not one. Put your personal politics aside and do what you need to do.”
An apparently unruffled Gass shot back, “Your assumption is that we only talk to those who contact us. For you to assume that I have not spoken to others is an assumption. You are assuming I’m not addressing them, their beliefs. I guess it’s a personal position when it doesn’t agree with your position and a representing of the people when it does. That just seems to be the way the land lies and I can’t change that.”
Allen Lennon, a non-city resident from Amelia Island and a volunteer in many local organizations, asked to be recognized and spoke about the importance of volunteers to the community. He suggested that by making a financial contribution to the organizations in which local citizens invest their volunteer efforts the FBCC will validate those efforts and encourage more volunteering in the community.
FBCC debates, deliberates and votes
Mayor Pelican turned to City Manager Joe Gerrity and asked how many positions the city has eliminated over the last year. He responded that 18 positions have been cut and that he has been trying to plug service gaps with part timers.
Pelican turned to the audience and said, “Our responsibility first and foremost is to run this city to the best of our ability with the money we bring in. That $25,000 [cut from non-profit funding] could be used to fund another part time or full time position.”
Commissioner Arlene Filkoff responded, citing the FBCC’s give back of money borrowed to fund infrastructure projects under the Forward Fernandina strategic plan. Despite the fact that $144K had already been spent on engineering, permitting and planning for those projects, the FBCC voted to return unspent funds with little discussion or consideration of the impact of the decision on the city’s waterfront Community Redevelopment Area. “When we gave back that money that was earmarked for infrastructure, the work government is supposed to do, we wasted that $144K,” she reminded commissioners. With what sounded like hints of exasperation in her voice, she said, “Yet we are spending megabucks over a discussion of $25K set aside for non-profits without asking ourselves what would this decision do to the non-profits. By the time we are through with this discussion we will have spent $25K talking about it. This time we need to consider the impact of not supporting them.”
In returning to the return of the Forward Fernandina project loan, she said,“I have major heartburn that it is okay to give back that money without the work being done. And that was done absolutely to fulfill campaign promises. In this case what will the message really be for the non-profits? I don’t think we have thought that through. This time we need to think what the impact is to our community of taking this support away.”
Ed Boner after consulting with City Attorney Tammi Bach and Comptoller Patti Clifford fashioned a motion to return the $25K from contingency for non-profit funding with specific agency allocations to follow. Filkoff seconded his motion. Gass and Pelican voted it down. Boner asked Pelican, who had paused significantly before her vote, if there were a figure she would be comfortable with. “Is there any support for any amount less than that?” he asked.
Pelican said there might be some support for that. Upon reflection Pelican said she would support reintroducing $10K total to assist social service non-profits. Filkoff essentially restated Boner’s previous motion with the new dollar amount, and Boner seconded the motion. The motion passed on a 3-1 vote, with Gass continuing to oppose funding these agencies.