Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
All City of Fernandina Beach department budget numbers past, present or future that you could ever want to see were presented in excruciating detail during a 3-hour budget workshop on August 13. The workshop allowed commissioners and the public – fewer than 10 non-city employees attended – an opportunity to hear presentations, watch slide shows and ask questions. None of the candidates who qualified for city commission elections in November attended, with the exception of Tim Poynter, the lone incumbent. After considering the input from the departments, there were no suggestions from the commissioners for additional cuts in personnel or programs.
Both City Manager Joe Gerrity and Mayor Arlene Filkoff thanked the city’s department directors for their considerable efforts to cut their budgets while trying to maintain as close to current levels of service as possible. Gerrity also acknowledged the assistance of Interim City Manager Dave Lott. There will be no pay raises for city employees in the proposed budget. Through collective bargaining this fall, the city also hopes to make some changes that will save additional salary money in the Fire and Rescue Department.
City Manager Gerrity said, “I don’t think there is a department head except John Mandrick [Utilities] who feels he isn’t being moved out of his comfort zone with this budget.” As manager of an enterprise fund, Mandrick informed the commission that since 2003, when the city took over the waterworks from Florida Public Utilities (FPU), more than $4M has been transferred to the city’s General Fund. This is money that FPU would have returned to its investors as profit.
In other areas, city permitting fees will basically remain at their current level, except for some reductions for smaller projects. Despite concerns that recreation programs and facilities would be on the chopping block, the proposed budget does not call for cuts, although some fees will be increased. The Code Enforcement Division will be returning to the Community Development Department (CDD) from the Police Department. Due to staffing cuts, CDD will open to the public a half-hour later daily (8:00 a.m. instead of 7:30 a.m.). A part-time airport position will be converted to full time. The Marina will explore discounts on high volume gas purchases by boaters during their repositioning cruises. Golf course rates will remain the same.
Commissioners appeared to be most concerned about the impact of cutbacks in the Maintenance Department and the Information Technology Department.
Rex Lester and Jeremiah Glisson, Maintenance Department managers, explained to commissioners that between their recent reorganization and the budget, they have lost 5 positions as well as equipment and vehicles. While they have saved the general fund over $300K as a result, many expenses have continued to rise. It will take longer to get work done, and it will be harder to get it done as a result. The cleanup from recent tropical storms has had a serious impact on the department’s workload. While the department’s goal is to be more proactive than reactive, both weather emergencies and the increasing number of special events severely tax the remaining staff and resources of the department.
Michael Rooney, the city’s IT director, painted an even gloomier picture. The department’s staff of 3 supports hardware and software needs of the city as well as providing help desk service. Rooney said that the city is overdue for critical hardware replacements. Additionally, critical software updates are needed to continue to provide database security. Rooney said that there has been no technology refresh for 5 years. “Technology allows us to do more with less, but we need to support the technology,” he said. Current IT priorities are the web and the phone system, scheduled for replacement this fall. Next year, he believes, will be devoted to “putting out fires.” With hardware starting to fail and the need for server upgrades, there is serious concern that employee productivity will be adversely impacted.
During the presentations, Mayor Filkoff asked several questions about how well and how often city employees work together across department and fund lines to get projects done. Answers were mixed, reflecting what appeared to be uncertainty on the part of the departments in handling their own workloads with reduced resources.
The need to be proactive was another theme repeated by commissioners, especially with maintenance issues. Commissioner Tim Poynter asked, “How do we change the way we do business?” He expressed concern that every year at budget time many of these same problems come up. He expressed particular concern about IT, saying that neglecting those needs “makes the city look bad on so many levels.” He suggested that $90K which is reserved in the library portion of the city budget be moved to IT when the city and county agree to move forward with construction on the library renovation and expansion project. At that time, the library roof expense would be covered under the city’s $600K contribution to the project.
City Manager Gerrity agreed to follow up on Rooney’s suggestion to contact the Florida League of Cities for advice and assistance in assessing the city’s IT needs.
The next Fernandina Beach City Commission budget workshop is scheduled for Monday, August 20, 2012 at 5:05 p.m. in City Commission Chambers.
August 15, 2012 3:38 p.m.