City Commission holds ‘virtual’ meeting

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  • City Hall was closed to the public on Tuesday as the Fernandina Beach City Commission held a virtual regular meeting due to the danger from the coronavirus epidemic. City Commissioners appeared on a screen inside as well as on a stream on the city’s website and on the local government access channel. Public comments were taken via email. PEG DAVIS/NEWS-LEADER
    City Hall was closed to the public on Tuesday as the Fernandina Beach City Commission held a virtual regular meeting due to the danger from the coronavirus epidemic. City Commissioners appeared on a screen inside as well as on a stream on the city’s website and on the local government access channel. Public comments were taken via email. PEG DAVIS/NEWS-LEADER
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In its ‘virtual’ meeting Tuesday, almost every item discussed by the Fernandina Beach City Commission was touched by thoughts of the coronavirus, with commissioners painfully aware of the effect the pandemic is having on the local economy and the people.

“I don’t think we should be doing business as usual,” Vice Mayor Len Kreger said.

And it certainly wasn’t, with City Hall locked to the public and each commissioner appearing on a videoconferencing screen to address each other and the city manager. The meeting was carried on the city’s website and on the local government access channel.

The commissioners voted to allocate $210,000 to help buy food for people in the community. Many here have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic’s official stay-at-home orders closing or restricting their businesses.

Commissioner Chip Ross proposed, and the commission approved, the following amounts each month for three months in order to provide food for those qualified:

• Nassau County Council on Aging, $40,000;

• Salvation Army Hope House, $10,000; and

• Barnabas Center, $20,000.

City Manager Dale Martin said Nassau County has additionally provided $50,000 to NCCOA, and Ross said he requested the county to provide additional funding. He arrived at the amounts for the organizations by talking with the directors of each about their needs and capacity. He said other agencies may need funding, and those requests should also be considered by the city.

Martin explained that the money for the contributions will come from a $400,000 reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for debris removal after Hurricane Irma.

Commissioner Mike Lednovich said the city needs a concrete plan that includes a definition of essential services and what expenditures will not be made until the city knows fully what the effects of the coronavirus pandemic will have on city finances.

“What I don’t have in my hand is a document that says we aren’t going to spend another dime on Toptracer,” Lednovich said. “I don’t have in my hand (a document saying) we’re not going to spend another dime of taxpayer money on a waterfront park. That’s what I’m asking. Let’s give the city manager some specific directions of where we don’t want him to spend money. Unless we take formal action, we are acting in a vacuum.”

Revenues such as sales, use, and fuel taxes and charges for services are what Lednovich referred to as “at risk,” meaning that, unlike property taxes, those revenues are harder to predict.

The projection for those types of revenues for the next six months is $4.2 million.

Lednovich said the Amelia Island Tourist Development Council has reduced their projected income (made up of taxes on overnight lodging) by 50%, a formula that, if applied to city revenues, would mean a $2.1 million shortfall.

Lednovich said it is key to determine what is “nonessential” spending, a process that he said can become political. He used a planned Toptracer project at the Fernandina
Beach Golf Club as an example, a $300,000 investment he predicted would be voted down if it were considered now. He believes the city should defer plans for the Amelia River waterfront, including moving forward with work on Front Street, opening the Alachua Street railroad crossing, and building a waterfront park, and reconsider plans to build or acquire a new City Hall.

“I’m not saying cancel projects,” Lednovich said. “I’m saying suspend, postpone or defer. At some point in time, you will reconsider.

“Gentlemen, this is a point in time for us to be very, very conservative with taxpayer assets. My argument is that taxpayer assets only go to essential services and services that protect the health, safety and welfare of our citizens.”

Kreger supported taking a cautious approach to finances.

“There seems to be an attitude that we are OK this year, the taxes will come in so we can keep doing what we’re doing,” Kreger said. “I think that’s a serious mistake. I think we need to tighten the belt.”

Later in the meeting, Martin said that city employees are taking every expenditure into consideration and that the city is still in a good financial position.

“I think most of you fail to give staff due credit,” Martin said. “If you look at the comptroller’s monthly budget report, you will see that, yes, as Commissioner Lednovich indicated, we are currently $6.7 million under budget on our revenues, but I think what people are failing to understand is we are nearly $16 million under on our expenditures. We have a $13.5 million fund balance as of Feb. 29. I think this staff is doing a darn good job of evaluating what is essential and what is nonessential.”

Martin said some projects are being paid for out of restricted funds, and the city does in fact have the money to finance them. He said some projects, such as an assessment of options for a new city hall, could move forward without spending any money.

“I think staff is very capable of undertaking what is essential, what is nonessential, what has been set forth by the City Commission,” he said. “If you as a City Commission want to direct us to go in a different direction, then please direct us.”

One expenditure the commission approved was a proposal from Datasavers Information Management Solutions to scan records from the Building Department for $251,400. Lednovich said he believes the purchase should be deferred, but City Attorney Tammi Bach explained that the money for the expenditure is in the Building Department’s reserves and can only be spent in that department. The proposal was approved by a 3-2 margin, with Lednovich and Kreger voting against it. Kreger said he thought the purchase would send a negative message to the community.

The commission also took a step toward the “eminent domain” process of purchasing some additional property on the waterfront.

Bach explained that attorney Arthur “Buddy” Jacobs, hired by the city to pursue the purchase, requested a resolution authorizing the city to proceed with eminent domain action on the parcel located on North Front Street currently owned by the O’Steen Company and the Simmons family. The city offered $850,000 to the owners, who did not accept the offer or make a counteroffer. The resolution was approved 4-1 with Kreger dissenting.

The commission voted against spending $47,500, half the cost of a beach conservation plan. The city and county were to have split the cost of the $95,000 plan. The creation of the plan is the first step in obtaining
an incidental take permit from the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection, which Kreger said is needed since the city and county allow driving on the beach, a threat to sea turtles, an endangered and protected species. Kreger cast the only vote approving the cost of the plan.

The City Commission passed changes to the ordinance that protects trees in the city. Those changes include increasing penalties charged for violations of the ordinance, requiring an arborist report when trees are removed, and strengthening requirements before trees can be removed. That ordinance can be found at https://bit.ly/3aYcul9.

Since no members of the public were allowed in Commission Chambers for the meeting, Martin read aloud emails from the public in lieu of the public comments portion of the meeting. Some of the emails asked the City Commission to consider reopening the beaches, which were closed due to concerns of spreading coronavirus.

Jim and Anne Merkey wrote that they believe people would adhere to social distancing guidelines if they were allowed to go to the beach for exercise. Nora and Douglas Haser’s email said the Egans Creek Greenway is crowded and suggested guidelines for opening the beach, as did Kent Fleming, but Betty Jo Olsen wrote that she believes people would congregate on the beach if it were reopened and asked the commission not to do so.

In other business, the City Commission:

• Approved a contract for $25,000 with the Northeast Florida Regional Council for work on the city’s Evaluation and Appraisal Report;

• Approved a budget transfer in the amount of $88,715 from the Building Department’s reserve account to the department’s vehicles account;

• Approved increasing the approved amount to Strategic Government Resources Inc. from $21,250.00 to $24,353.22 for additional advertisements related to services to recruit a human resources director to replace the retiring HR director and a deputy city manager/engineer; 

• Approved the purchase of a greens mower, aerator, and sand pro spiker from Wesco Turf Inc. in an amount not to exceed $64,868.39;

• Approved the amended fee schedules for the airport and Planning & Conservation Department for fiscal year 2019/2020;

• Approved a facilities use agreement with Driving Dynamics Inc. to present a safe driving program at the Fernandina Beach Municipal Airport;

• Authorized the extension of water services to the property located at 856 Robinhood Drive and approved a voluntary annexation petition for the property;

• Approved the designation of a live oak tree at 112 S. 10th St. as a “Heritage Tree”;

• Approved a grant application under the Florida Inland Navigation District (FIND) Waterways Assistance Program for the development of the public marina waterfront boardwalk improvement project;

• Approved a three-year labor agreement with the Coastal Florida Police Benevolent Association; and

• Authorized a Florida Department of Transportation Public Transportation Grant Agreement for $8,000, with a 50% matching requirement, for design and construction phases of a project to rehabilitate a portion of the transient aircraft parking apron at the Fernandina Beach Municipal Airport.

The News-Leader updates the “COVID-19 numbers for Nassau County” story on our website with the officially reported numbers of cases confirmed by testing. The story includes links to information from government sources.
A COVID-19 call center is available 24/7 to answer questions and hear your concerns. You can also email them: (866) 779-6121 or email COVID-19@flhealth.gov.

jroberts@fbnewsleader.com