November 1, 2019
I’ve reached the halfway point of the third series of my Government Academy, hosted by the Nassau County Council on Aging (thank you, Ms. Janice Ancrum, for the opportunity and the use of your wonderful facility). Unlike the first two series that gathered in the afternoon, this series meets in the evening. The final Wednesday sessions will explore the City’s Police and Fire Departments, the City’s water and wastewater systems, and the City’s Airport, Golf Course, and Marina operations.
As was the case with the first two series, the current group is wonderfully engaging, inquisitive. The series opened with an overview of local government in Florida and the physical growth of the City, highlighted by the 1951 consolidation of Fernandina and Fernandina Beach, including the “no man’s land” between those two communities.
I shared copies of the City Charter with the group. This relatively short document is the foundation of Fernandina Beach government- it is our local version of the U.S. Constitution, providing for the framework of government. It is a governing document, not a policy document.
The Charter has only a few basic sections: the establishment of the City, the creation of the City Commission and the “Charter Officers” (City Manager, City Attorney, and City Clerk), the formation of the Police, Fire, and Finance Departments, Finance and Taxation provisions, the conduct of elections, and some General Provisions. The Charter can be found on the City’s web site on the City Clerk’s page (www.fbfl.us/40/City-Charter-and-Code-of-Ordinances). Please note that the combined appearance of both the City Charter and the Code of Ordinances, but please also recognize the distinction between the two components.
Residents should familiarize themselves with the City Charter because the City Commission has created a Charter Review Committee. Each City Commissioner was entitled to an appointment to the Charter Review Committee, as were the City Clerk and the City Manager. The City Attorney serves as counsel to the Charter Review Commission.
These seven residents will review the City Charter and, if appropriate, will recommend revisions to the City Charter. Their recommendations will then be presented to the City Commission for consideration and, if approved by the City Commission, the proposed revisions will then be presented to the community in a referendum. The City Charter can only be changed by referendum.
Following the introduction of City organization, I devoted the next two meetings to taxation and finance. During the first two series, I had devoted only one session to taxation and finance, but the recent budget efforts led me to decide to spend more time on the issue.
It is apparent that many people do not understand government finance. I believe that this is likely due to the lack of interest in government finance. I find that lack of interest to be normal- it is not exactly an engaging topic at social gatherings. Also, government finance is not often a course of instruction at any level of school- I don’t even remember classwork related to government finance as part of my graduate degree (accounting, yes; finance, no). My knowledge and interest have simply come from many years of municipal service, something an overwhelming number of people will never experience (nor do they want to).
As I indicated earlier, the participants in the series have been engaging. They have also been very intelligent- but they have, in very few instances, never had the time and opportunity to learn how the “system” works. What are millage rates and rollback rates? What are the differences between Market, Assessed, and Taxable Values? What is “homestead” and “portability”? At the individual property owner level, these issues are the foundation of how the City operates- the City budget.
The participants voiced concerns about the relationship between their priorities and the City Commission priorities as evident in the budget. For example, several concerns were articulated about the financial support required to maintain the Marina (a topic likely to be discussed further at Tuesday evening’s City Commission meeting, but also applicable to the City Golf Course): why are more and more of my tax dollars supporting that facility that evidently cannot support itself, why do we need a Marina (Golf Course), what’s the plan to address the financial woes of the Marina (Golf Course)?
The “answers” to those questions are, in part, illustrated in the City’s budget, following months of public discussions and hearings to establish the priorities of the budget. The City Commissioners do not represent individual residents, but rather what they sincerely believe to be the best interests of the entire community. For every person that questions the rationale for the Marina (Golf Course), another passionate voice will articulate the need or desire for that same facility.
Learning how the “system” works is the first step in advocating for priorities. I thank the participants of the Government Academy for taking that step.