City Commission candidates sound off at forum

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  • Candidates for the Fernandina Beach City Commission had varying views on managing debt incurred by the city-owned marina. JULIA ROBERTS/NEWS-LEADER
    Candidates for the Fernandina Beach City Commission had varying views on managing debt incurred by the city-owned marina. JULIA ROBERTS/NEWS-LEADER
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Concerned Friends of Fernandina held a forum Friday to give the candidates for the Fernandina Beach City Commission a chance to answer questions about some major issues facing the city.

The candidates for the commission’s Group 1 seat are Bradley Bean and Marian Phillips; Group 2, Alexandra Lajoux, Genece Minshew, and David Sturges; and Group 3, Wendall McGahee and incumbent Dr. Chip Ross. Former mayor Sarah Pelican moderated the forum. In order to distance themselves due to the coronavirus pandemic, Bean and Lajoux took turns speaking at the lectern used for public comment in the City Commission Chamber while the other candidates sat on the dais.

The Fernandina Harbor Marina

All but one candidate shared optimism about the marina’s new management company, Oasis Marinas, scheduled to take over operations before the end of the year. McGahee said he believes the city needs to bring in a company to take over marina operations – which Oasis will do – and “relieve us of that financial burden.” McGahee also said the city needs to get all areas of the marina open to boats, though the marina is already open with the exception of fueling.

Both Sturges and Phillips believe the marina could make more money with different revenue streams.

Phillips favors “a wharf-type walkway” and once again welcoming shrimp boats. “How can we call ourselves the birthplace of the modern shrimping industry if we don’t have shrimp boats down there?” she asked.

Sturges suggested creating more area around the marina that could be leased, as he believes the marina and the waterfront are parts of a whole. He said the area could be leased for boat slips “or small project ‘leaseable’ area businesses.”

Both Phillips and Sturges said they support refinancing the marina’s multi-million dollar debt, but some candidates had more details on the best way to package that refinancing.

Minshew proposed a long-term bond, creating a stable payment the city can plan for.

Lajoux said she is “confident that we can extend the term of the debt and change the interest rate. There (is) also a market for municipal debt that would allow us to restructure that debt.”

Ross broke down the marina’s debt in detail: “The marina has $14.7 million in debt,” Ross said. “The attenuator that got blown out by the storm was $8 million. Dredging can cost $1 million and had nothing to do with the storm. The new docks that were configured cost $1.5 million. The previous debt prior to Matthew was $4.2 million. Currently there’s a (Marina Revenue and Refunding Note, Series 2016B) improvement, which is pre-Matthew, which is $2.6 million. There’s a utility fund note for $1.3 million, there’s a line of credit for $8.3 million, and a loan from the utility fund for $2.5 million to cover the negative cash flow.

“I have proposed financing that would continue to pay on the current debt (of) 2016B, which would be paid off in 2026 at 1.92%, borrow money from the utility fund over 20 years, Treasury plus 1.5% which comes to 1.67% over 20 years. (The Federal Emergency Management Agency) has agreed to pay at least $2.6 million. The remainder, if FEMA does not pay, may be as much as $4.8 million (which) we need to go out on the open market and finance over 20 years.”

Bean suggested working with FEMA to secure several million dollars in requested reimbursements the agency has so far denied following repairs and replacements necessary after Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. “Let’s see what we can get before we finish tapping that root,” he said.

Land Conservation

All of the candidates said they support conservation efforts, but not all of them said they would support increasing property taxes in order to fund land purchases.

Both McGahee and Phillips said they support buying land to be put into conservation and monitoring development but did not say if they favor additional millage.

While expressing support for conservation, Sturges said the city does not yet know the full effects the coronavirus pandemic will have on city finances so he does not currently support additional millage. He did say he might consider it in the future and recommended looking at other ways to finance conservation efforts.

Bean also said he would not favor additional millage and wants to keep taxes low due to the current economic upheaval caused by the COVID-19 virus.

Ross said the property taxes currently earmarked to pay for the Egans Creek Greenway – as well as Parks & Recreation Department impact fees – could be used for conservation land purchases, though he did not say if he favored either of those ideas or additional millage.

Lajoux said she favors a referendum to raise additional funds for land purchases but the details, such as how much the millage increase would be, would need to be worked out.

Minshew said raising millage for conservation efforts “depends on what’s happening with the current money and the properties that are up for consideration.”

“I think we need to understand how we worked with the North Florida Land Trust and which properties we look at. If we just say we are going to buy this lot and that lot willy-nilly without a clear plan, I can’t support that, but if we have a clear plan with properties that are identified, that it makes sense why we would want to preserve that land, I would be willing to take a hard look at another referendum, but I don’t think we are ready to do that yet.”

The Port of Fernandina

The city’s relationship with the Ocean Highway and Port Authority has often been contentious. Two of the latest issues include OHPA’s refusal to continue compensating the city with $50,000 annually as a Payment In Lieu Of Taxes and the erection of a fabric building on Port of Fernandina property without applying for a permit and paying fees.

All the candidates agreed the port needs to follow the city’s codes and the OHPA needs to make the PILOT payments, and that the relationship should be improved while protecting the city’s interests.

Bean added that the problems between the two governments are part of a pattern. “Let’s do whatever is necessary to make sure their end of the deal is being kept, because we sure are keeping ours by having a great city around them,” Bean said. “Let’s make sure they hold their end of the deal.”

Tree protection

Candidates were asked what they would do to protect the island’s tree canopy.

Phillips said growth needs to be monitored, and hefty fines should be in place for violations of the city’s tree protection ordinances. Sturges also supports large fines for illegal tree removal, while Ross suggested implementing the city’s tree planting plan. Lajoux noted her recent work to save 25 trees from being removed at Simmons Park, currently under construction.

Bean said he is “data-driven” and wants to create a metric to track trees in the city, using a map of trees the city already has to keep abreast of any loss of trees. He said that method could be applied to other areas of government. 

“I intend to do this for many different metrics, whether that be trees or our budget,” Bean said. “I want to see, in real time, what are the problems. If we see a dip one week, we can immediately know there’s an issue and correct. I would like to see these metrics and implement that when I’m elected.”

Minshew sits on the city’s Planning Advisory Board, which recently oversaw a reworking of the city’s tree protection laws. She said the way to protect trees is to address the process from the inside out, in the city’s Land Development Code and Comprehensive Plan.

“I’m very happy to say we made significant improvements in the tree ordinance and in the fines and processes,” she said. “We also increased the percentage of trees that have to stay on the property (during development) or the percentage of trees, depending on how they are removed, how much goes into the tree fund, which is used to repopulate trees in the community.

“We now have in our ordinance that an arborist has to be onsite when you are doing any kind of land clearing so we can ensure that people are not making mistakes, but I think the most important thing we can do for trees right now is to properly fund the rewrite of the Comprehensive Plan and the Land Development Code so that we can continue to strengthen the work we are doing to preserve our trees.”

Dune walkovers

The dune walkovers at the city’s beaches have become a very expensive project due to many years of deferred maintenance and repair. The candidates were asked how the city could address the problem of giving beachgoers access without the millions of dollars the city says building new walkovers would cost.

Sturges, who is a builder by trade, was happy to address the question, saying the city spends too much on beach accesses.

“I think (the proposed price tag of) $9 million (for new accesses) is ridiculous,” Sturges said. “If I’m not (elected), please hire me for that $9.7 million job (because) I’m ready to take it,” he joked.

“First and foremost, they need to go out and repair the walkovers we have and limit it to a few handicap accessible walkovers necessary for handicapped people to access the beach,” Sturges said. “Secondly, we should hire two or three carpenters and a foreman and put them to work. I know the commission did what they thought was best; however, I know what it costs to build one, and it doesn’t cost $110,000 to build a walkover, or the numbers that were spent. If you hired carpenters and took maintenance the city currently has, you probably would have a better approach to building them at a much more reasonable price.

“I would maintain and build the ones that really need to be done. There’s hundreds of accesses across our beach that don’t have a walkover. There’s different ways you can lay out a trail. There’s different ways to get to the beach without causing harm to the dunes by building a structure that’s only going to decay and cause maintenance issues in the future. It needs to be something that’s going to last forever.”

Phillips suggested an “Adopt-a-Walkover” program – similar to Adopt a Highway – that would allow organizations to sponsor a walkover.

Lajoux wants to fund walkovers with money from the Amelia Island Tourist Development Council.

Ross said he’s working to get more community input regarding walkover construction.

Bean wants to do repair work on the walkovers during the off-season.

McGahee wants to ensure accessibility but “not doing anything we don’t have to do when it comes to expenditures.”

Support for businesses

The candidates said they believe one of the impediments to operating a business in Fernandina Beach are the city’s numerous requirements, which were referred to as bureaucracy.

“We want to make sure that the process is not a maze, a roller coaster,” McGahee said. “It shouldn’t be that complicated.”

Bean addressed the cost of doing business in the city.

“Taxes are so much higher in the city. One of the policies I want to push and look at is taxes,” he said. “How can me make sure we keep them at a minimum? How can we make sure they are fair and justly apportioned across all our constituents? How can we keep them low?

“There’s odd fees and taxes in the city. It’s a hard bureaucracy to navigate. There’s odd taxes you might not even know about until you open a business. Let’s make sure things are as transparent as possible. Keeping government small is pro-business.”

Minshew referred to the way city government is set up as “siloed,” adding “there is a lot of opportunity to redesign and reorganize so that we can make the processes more straightforward.” Sturges said he would work to streamline processes and find ways to fund government without adding taxes.

Phillips said business owners in the city are aware of the
challenges before they start a business in the city, and she would support businesses
“like we way we did during COVID.”

A video recording of the forum can be viewed on the city’s website at fbfl.us. 

Early voting will take place 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week at all precincts beginning Oct. 19 and continue through Nov. 1. Then, Election Day voting will take place 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 3. All three City Commission races will be on the ballot, and all city voters elect all three seats.

jroberts@fbnewsleader.com