Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
At the September 4, 2012 regular Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) meeting Commissioners Sarah Pelican and Charlie Corbett played Lucy to City Manager Joe Gerrity’s Charlie Brown by once again pulling away the football as he ran to punt it. In this case, the football was an amendment to increase the electric franchise fee to 6.0% from its current 5.05%. The proposed increase had been fully discussed at the FBCC’s August 21 meeting as necessary to both balance the FY 2012-13 budget and to keep a healthy 20% emergency reserve. The 6% was a fallback from Gerrity’s original proposal of 7.32%, which these commissioners also failed to support after voicing no objections during earlier budget meetings. Commissioner Tim Poynter had consistently indicated his opposition to raising either the franchise fee or the millage rate until Gerrity produced additional spending cuts. But neither Pelican nor Corbett had voiced any opposition throughout 6 budget workshops or meetings to using the franchise fee as a means to balance the budget.
By voting down the proposed increase commissioners, who had already gutted the city’s reserve contingency to $70,000 by dropping back to the 6% rate, were moving the city into dangerous fiscal territory. Gerrity sensed trouble when Mayor Filkoff had to step down to second the motion to approve made by Vice Mayor Jeffrey Bunch. Before the vote Gerrity strongly indicated that this measure was needed to allow the city to provide a balanced budget by September 30, the legal deadline.
Commissioner Charlie Corbett asked how much of the increase would go to fund Forward Fernandina (F2) projects. City Controller Patti Clifford responded that about 0.6% of the total franchise fee was dedicated to that, or about $150,000 for principal and debt service. Commissioner Tim Poynter jumped in seeking clarification that only 60 cents per $100 of electricity used would be spent on F2, while the remainder of the franchise fee would be spent on other city activities paid from the general fund. Clifford concurred.
When the vote was taken, the motion failed 3-2. Gerrity said, “Since the commission has not approved new revenue or offered cuts and we have no contingency, we are between a rock and a hard place. The difference needed to balance the budget will have to come from emergency reserves.” Clifford said that she would bring to the next meeting a budget with no contingency and a dip of $180,000 into city reserves. Upon hearing that Poynter made a motion to reconsider the vote, seconded by Mayor Filkoff. The motion passed 3-2 with Corbett and Pelican dissenting.
City manager Gerrity asked for permission to speak. (To view one minute video of Gerrity’s comments click on Gerrity photo above.) He indicated that he needed to lecture the commissioners on their failure to speak up during the preceding succession of budget meetings, allowing that he had always been clear on Poynter’s position, but never heard anything from Corbett and Pelican. “It’s your job to tell us what you want to do. We can’t read minds. It’s your responsibility to bring suggestions to the table.”
The 6% franchise fee motion passed 3-2 on a motion to reconsider made by Vice Mayor Bunch and seconded by Commissioner Poynter, while Corbett and Pelican remained opposed. When contacted after the meeting and asked why he had changed his vote, Poynter explained, “It was the right thing to do for the city, even though I hated approving any increase without additional cuts in expenditures. It would have been irresponsible to dip into reserves $180,000 while anticipating yet another bill in connection with the McGill litigation. “
Later in the meeting Commissioner Corbett brought up yet again repayment of the loan to fund Forward Fernandina projects. This was Corbett’s third formal attempt since taking office in January to stop progress on capital improvement projects lumped together under the heading Forward Fernandina and approved by the last city commission. Money for the first phase of the project — $1.8M – has already been received by the city and committed to projects involving Front Street improvements, railroad crossings and library renovation. Corbett recited a litany of figures that related to debt service on this loan over the past two years and indicated that there is nothing to show for this money. He therefore moved that unspent money from this loan be repaid in full to save continuing interest charges; Commissioner Pelican seconded the motion.
Commissioner Tim Poynter immediately jumped into the discussion and presented a slide show (Power Point Debt Discussion – Photos of Railroad Tracks, and Depott) that provided a history of the city’s use of non-voted debt over the past years, a breakdown of the proceeds of the current loan and commitments to various projects, and a series of photos of the targeted areas for improvement. He carefully explained that by citing the various commissioners who approved projects funded with non-voted debt, he was not criticizing them. Rather he was emphasizing that every commission faces challenges and opportunities and must act in what they believe to be the best interest of the public. Projects included in his extensive list included purchase of the waterworks, golf course and marina improvements, purchase of the new police station and park land. The total cost for all these projects amounted to almost $58M. Many of these projects were financed at interest rates over 5%. They were refinanced in 2005 lowering the interest rate to 3.77% thus saving the city additional money.
The loan currently under discussion has an interest rate of 2.43%, and all but $98,000 of it has been committed to various projects that are in some stage of planning and permitting. Should the Rayonier land purchase be approved for use as a retention pond for the waterfront park, that would take the bulk of this remainder.
Poynter moved into the photo portion of his presentation, showing the deteriorated rail crossings at Ash and Centre Streets. While indicating that said some have said that the city should put aside money to pay for potential lawsuits, “Here’s a novel idea: why not fix these things so that there are no [causes for] lawsuits?” He presented slides showing the current deteriorated state of Alachua Street between 2nd Street and the waterfront and asked, “We’re good with this? A block off Centre Street and we’re good with this? I can’t believe it.” His final slides showcased the historic train depot on Centre Street and the deteriorated wood and windows.
Poynter concluded his presentation by saying that any thoughts of proceeding with the initial plans to spend $6M to fund the broader scope of work was not realistic, given the current thinking on the commission. But since the borrowed $1.8M was already in hand and designated for a series of projects, the commission needed to move ahead with them. “Let’s get it done. If you want to kill the rest of Forward Fernandina, then kill it. But the citizens deserve action on these projects.”
Corbett said he didn’t agree at all. “We simply don’t have the money to do this,” he said. “Actually,” he added, directing his remarks to Poynter, “wouldn’t the improvement to Alachua benefit you? Isn’t that why you are for this?” While Poynter tried to respond, Corbett kept demanding a yes or no answer, prompting an exasperated Poynter to respond, “Of course not, Charlie.” The exchange continued with Corbett maintaining that the city does not have the money and now is not the time to do these things.
Commissioner Sarah Pelican also weighed in, indicating her displeasure that the presentation had not been included commissioners’ packets in advance of the meeting. She said claimed that Poynter was trying to make her and Corbett “the bad guys” when in effect monies that had been borrowed in earlier times for projects funded with non-voted debt had been done in better financial times. She blamed the previous commission for inaction on the library because money had been included in previous budgets to replace the roof and air conditioning system. She claimed Poynter’s criticisms were “specious” because the projects in question had been kicked down the road.
Pelican and Poynter got into a heated exchange that covered a variety of charges and counter charges. Pelican resorted to quoting from printed material including Poynter’s statements from last February, asking why this debt was not put out to vote. Poynter cited the recent example of the FBCC’s agreeing to spend $500K to assist the Humane Society with a new shelter using non-voted funds. Pelican, a supporter of the Humane Society, claimed that was different and had been necessitated because of deferred maintenance.
Corbett jumped in saying that last November two commissioners had been fired because citizens don’t want these improvements. He informed Poynter, “You’re the one who’s up for election in November and we’ll see then.”
Mayor Arlene Filkoff thanked the commissioners for their “civil” discourse and tried to summarize the issue before the vote. She said that Corbett’s motion would mean no money for the Alachua improvements and no money for the library. To that Corbett replied, “Bingo!” She added that the chances of future commissions getting such a favorable interest rate for these projects were zero to none. City Controller Patti Clifford expressed her personal disappointment that these matters were coming up now when they had not surfaced during 6 budget workshops. She reminded commissioners that should they support Corbett’s motion, the FY 2012-13 budget would need to be reworked as will the entire 5-year capital improvement plan.
Mayor Filkoff asked for any final comments, and Robin Lentz rose from the audience to make an impassioned plea to Commissioner Corbett. She talked about the importance of the library to her family and to the entire community. She said that during the last election cycle Corbett had made the community believe that Forward Fernandina was wrong because of his inaccurate portrayal of the plan as taxation without representation. She pleaded with him not to consider giving the money back, to which Corbett responded, “Thank you for your unkind remarks.”
When the vote was taken, it was defeated in a 3-2 vote, with only Corbett and Pelican in opposition.
September 6, 2012 12:32 p.m.