The city of Fernandina Beach is facing hard decisions in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. One of the hardest was closing the beaches Saturday in order to discourage groups of people from gathering and possibly spreading the virus.
But, as with most situations, much of the city’s response will be through the control of its purse strings, as commissioners re-evaluate their previous plans for spending in anticipation of a sharp downturn in revenues as businesses close during the most lucrative time of year – tourist season.
“As much as I would like to, I do not see a light at the end of the tunnel, but rather an extended crisis requiring planning and establishment of goals and priorities,” Vice Mayor Len Kreger said. “The budget, as adopted, remains as the key document for goals and priorities. As the situation and response to the ongoing emergency develops, it will be possible to revise goals and priorities.”
Commissioner Mike Lednovich posted on social media several projects he believes should be canceled or reconsidered, including a $500,000 park on Simmons Road, a $500,000 Toptracer golf project at the city-owned golf course, plans for a park on the Amelia River waterfront, and a needs assessment for a new City Hall building. Lednovich also says the city should consider a hiring freeze and formulate programs to help people weather the storm, such as suspending docking fees for three months at the Fernandina Harbor Marina, and suspending fees for recreational programs.
Examples of shifting priorities include reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for $7 million the city spent to rehabilitate the marina following Hurricane Matthew. City Manager Dale Martin has been in contact with FEMA for months in order to nail down that reimbursement – with no progress.
“The FEMA reimbursement challenge is not likely to be addressed in the immediate future, given the re-focus of FEMA and other government officials on the current emergency,” Kreger said. “City staff is analyzing financial alternatives to manage the debt associated with the marina repairs in the interim.”
Kreger said he believes projects already underway should continue, if possible.
“Construction projects in progress should continue until the contractors notify of their inability to proceed, or are directed to stop,” Kreger said. “A ‘Shelter in Place’ (order) could require work stoppage. All projects in progress will continue for as long as is feasible under the current public health emergency declarations.”
Projects such as an Evaluation and Appraisal Report, a state-required examination of the city’s Comprehensive Plan with suggestions for changes to the document, should also move forward, Kreger said. The EAR was performed with community input by the Northeast Florida Regional Council.
“I do believe we need to proceed with approved projects, and would like to look at approval of the EAR, (the) Beach Habitat Conservation Plan and other critical projects,” he said. “Many of these projects are (under the city’s Planning & Conservation Department) and can easily be implemented and accomplished by consulting firms.”
Kreger said he will look to the heads of the city’s various departments for guidance on how to proceed.
“I would like to see a review of department priorities based on current staffing and projected limitations related to COVID-19,” he said. “As an example, I would recommend that the Planning Department concentrate on the regulatory requirement for required Comprehensive Plan amendments before looking at additional Land Development Code changes.”
“We know economic hardships are ahead,” Lednovich said. “My efforts are focused on preserving taxpayer assets in order to meet future needs and to keep the city running. We don’t know what lies ahead, but we do know that city revenues will be significantly impacted. That means every taxpayer penny counts. I’ve made it clear to the city manager about my position on non-essential spending, even for items in this year’s budget, going forward. I hope I have the support of my fellow commissioners in this endeavor.”
However, financial concerns are not the only aspect of the city’s response to the pandemic that are being considered.
While City Hall is not open to the public, city employees are still reporting to work, doing business by phone and email and through the city’s website. Kreger said the City Commission should be looking at a plan if staff can no longer work in City Hall.
“Sheltering in place will be a decision that will most likely be made at higher levels (federal, state, county),” he said. “Department directors will develop appropriate work efforts for those, if implemented, required to work remotely. At this point in time, city staff is on duty. Directors have been instructed to daily appropriately screen each employee and the general public is now prohibited from accessing City facilities.”
He said a shelter in place order would affect all but “essential” staff, but that could be a difficult determination.
“Part of determining essential workers is simple – first responders, streets and utilities, etc., but for some others it is not so simple and may require a decision to curtail city services,” Kreger said. “Along these lines, with the schools being closed, many staff will be required to take (paid and unpaid) leave unless we are able to effectively implement work-from-home procedures.”
Kreger said cooperation between residents and city government should be a top priority during this crisis.
“It is imperative (city commissioners) convey to the citizens we are actively in control of setting the policy for the city,” he said. “The feedback that I have received and read indicates that residents are well aware and supportive of the efforts and actions of the city commissioners.”
Commissioner Chip Ross said the city needs to ensure it can provide basic services – now and in the future.
“From my perspective, the city has two fundamental goals,” Ross said. “The first is to provide essential services such as police protection, fire and rescue services, keeping the toilets flushing, the water running, the trash being picked up and the roads functioning. We have adequate financial reserves and a dedicated workforce to make sure this happens. Our second goal is to ensure that, when this passes, the city has the ability to preserve our quality-of-life services – the parks, the beaches, the golf course, the marina and the airport. Future spending will be dictated by future revenues and events.”
Mayor Johnny Miller said he is working with Martin to identify options that could provide relief for local businesses. He
said he would have a list of those options available Tuesday evening.