At its final public budget hearing on the 2020-21 fiscal year millage rate and budget, the Fernandina Beach City Commission approved an “adjusted” rollback millage rate by a 3-2 vote, with two commissioners urging caution due to the downturn in the economy caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The millage rate adopted was 5.4683, a 3.2% increase over a standard rollback rate, adjusted for inflation. The commission also adopted a new budget totaling $160,861,005. The 2020-21 fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
Vice Mayor Len Kreger and Commissioner Mike Lednovich voted against the millage rate increase and the budget, while commissioners Chip Ross and Phil Chapman spoke in support of the adjusted rollback rate. Mayor Johnny Miller did not speak on the subject, but voted to approve the adjusted rollback rate.
Kreger opposed “anything other than the rollback rate.”
“We need to tell the community we understand the situation in the world,” the vice mayor said. “The state told all its departments to reduce by 8.3%.”
He defended his suggested cut of a project to bury utility lines on Front Street. Kreger said FPU may pay for burying the utility lines on Front Street, and that’s why he suggested removing that project from the budget. He added that he did not suggest removing vehicle purchases from the budget, but deferring them. He referred to a cut – $25,000 for maintenance of the city’s beach walkovers – that was made in order to go to the adjusted rollback rate instead of the first millage rate of 5.8533 on which a budget was prepared.
“Are you kidding me?” Kreger said. “We closed 13 of those a year ago (due to dilapidation to the point of being unsafe). We fixed the bad ones. We are going to cut money out for that? And then we go to the reserve? I have no problem going to the reserve, but there weren’t any significant cuts. I want to do the rollback because the country is in a crisis. People are suffering. I don’t want to have a tax increase for anybody. To cut $468,000 out to go back to the rollback rate sends a positive message. I think the message people see is that we need more money every year. We can become a lot more efficient.”
Lednovich said the situation described by Ross is a “normal year,” and that the current financial situation “is not a normal year by any stretch of the imagination.”
Lednovich noted some financial indicators, including loss of money from tourism, unemployment rates going up to 15%, cuts of positions in Nassau County schools, and drops in sales of HVAC companies and retail stores.
Lednovich said he hopes the country is coming out of its economic crisis, “but hope is not a strategy.”
“My point is not in opposition of projects, but rather to ask, do we need to spend this money right now as we head into an uncertain future?” Lednovich said.
Ross listed some items that he said had been considered for removal to bring the budget down to an amount that could be funded with the rollback rate, as suggested by Lednovich and
Kreger. Those items included hiring a consultant to create a report about the current City Hall, technical upgrades, a contribution to Fourth of July fireworks, a new Christmas tree and replacement of some city vehicles. He said those projects are essential.
Ross noted that he is running for reelection, and explained why he would vote to essentially raise taxes during his campaign.
“The external cost to the city to maintain the same services, that quality of life … goes up every year and the rollback rate is not sustainable, with the cost of goods going up,” Ross said. “I believe in doing what’s right and not what will get people to vote for me.”
Commissioner Phil Chapman said he does not believe the financial crisis is as gloomy as others suggested, noting that Amazon and Walmart are always hiring and that home sales and building permits on the island “seem to be skyrocketing.” He said that he has not received much feedback from the public “over this tax thing,” indicating people are either willing to accept the adjusted rollback rate or “they really don’t care.”
“I don’t personally think the cloud is as dark as it’s made out to be,” Chapman said. “As long as Amazon is begging people to come to work, I have a hard time believing economic times are that bad. My mom … said, ‘Put your muscle where your mouth is.’ If you’re that bad economically, go to Amazon, get a job. Go to Walmart, get a job.”
The only member of the public to speak at the hearing was Genece Minshew, a candidate for the City Commission’s Group 2 seat and one of two commission candidates at the meeting along with Group 2 candidate Alex Lajoux.
Minshew said she supports going to the rollback rate but wants to keep some items such as walkover maintenance and the overhaul of the Comprehensive Plan and LDC. Minshew is the chair of the city’s Planning Advisory Board and said the rewrite would “allow the PAB to do their job,” calling it one of the most important things the city can put into the budget. She also suggested a “really deep dive into the budget process.”