Several months ago Fernandina Beach City Commissioner Chip Ross contacted a handful of individual city residents who have been publicly critical of the city and city commissioners for a variety of reasons, ranging from the management of city assets (golf course, marina, etc.) and conservation land purchases to the city’s deteriorating infrastructure, budget growth and hiring and spending practices.
The congenial but stern Commissioner requested meetings with these folks one-on-one resulting in him mostly defending his and the city’s positions and the individual’s concerns being dismissed. This diverse group of individuals eventually connected with each other and coalesced into a small group that agrees there’s greater strength in numbers than meeting individually with one commissioner. Commissioner Ross’s initiative was the group’s organizing catalyst.
The recently created informal group now hashes out issues away from Commissioner Ross’s critical eye while still meeting occasionally with him to express ideas, gripes and thoughts, while not necessarily seeking his stamp of approval. Each member of the group has skin in the game as they are all city residents who own businesses, homes or other property within the city limits, and are focused on improving the efficiency and finances of city government.
During a recent meeting one member summed up the group’s purpose saying: “We endeavor to convey common sense and position our efforts as ‘for something’ as opposed to looking like we are simply against local government.”
The group is considering a two-way communications platform to generate interest among other city residents and keep them informed of its activities as well as encouraging them to contribute their thoughts and ideas.
As an observer among the group I’m comfortable that this is an organization that can actually make a difference in decision making at city hall and in local elections. These guys and gals aren’t a gaggle of sign-waving, screaming, fist-shaking, out-of-town extremists intent on intimidating or cowing elected officials and city staff. Nope! They’re residents and seasoned professionals — many are politically active here or have been in their former communities. They are current and retired lawyers; journalists; commercial and residential real estate professionals; former city officials, business owners, corporate executives, lobbyists, and more. Unlike the local wide-eyed environmental extremists, their firepower consists of facts and reason rather than decibels and threats. Their concern is the community canopy, not just the tree canopy.
A recent Wall Street Journal study indicates that this Fernandina Beach group isn’t alone in its concerns. A report conducted by the National League of Cities and cited in the WSJ study indicates that a large proportion of American cities are expecting general revenue to drop when the books close on the 2019 fiscal year, when adjusted for inflation, the first such dip in seven years. The cities range in population from the tens of thousands like Fernandina Beach to the millions. The report highlights factors that could indicate future fiscal distress such as job losses, industry downturns, the Coronavirus and ballooning bond and pension liabilities owed by these cities. Merritt Research Services says roughly 50 million Americans live in cities that are devoting at least a fifth of annual spending to debt.
Following, but in no particular order are some of the broad issues discussed by the citizen’s group that are caused by the city’s perceived incompetence:
- The city is becoming increasingly isolated due to its anti-growth policies and views.
- Fernandina Beach is becoming a high-tax enclave due to policies that discourage new residents.
- Builders are avoiding the city due to the its extremist environmental views, impact fees and permitting issues.
- Children of current long-time residents are unable to afford living in the city, thus increasing the population’s average age and taxes.
- Commissioners have taken their eyes off the ball as custodians of the city’s future.
Specific topics including one of the worst underfunded pension liabilities in the state and the city’s growing debt are never mentioned in public meetings by the City Manager Dale Martin or any of the commissioners. Ross’s standard answer to the citizen’s group on these topics has been: “The auditors say we’re fine.”
No topic is off the table. Currently there are two hot buttons where the group thinks it can make an immediate impact. They are: One, quantifying the expanding and bloated city budget and challenging the commissioners on it; Two, challenging the “environmental” push to buy land with taxpayer money. They’re asking if using taxpayer funding to take private property off the market and tax rolls a wise use of funds and is this what the majority of taxpayers and voters want? Buying 40 vacant lots as Commissioner Ross proposes seems like a low priority – particularly in light of the issues the city says if faces including a new fire station, the city hall issue, Atlantic Center and Peck Center maintenance, marina and golf course issues, etc.
One option is to cancel the conservation bond until the city does enough research to justify collecting taxes to buy property while it’s NOT currently conserving or maintaining its existing property. The city should also encourage, enable and organize opportunities for private citizens and companies to participate in a land conservation initiative. The group says it may volunteer to assist in that effort if the city would commit to kill the bond referendum and return/refund or repurpose the .5 mill collected.
How much in taxes are currently collected on the 40 lots Ross wants the city to buy? If they were developed, what would be the forecasted value and what would the tax liability be on that value? How does that compare to the cost of those lots? Along those lines what is the maintenance load to support the properties that the city already owns. Has there ever been a breakdown of the maintenance expenses by property? This could all be eye opening.
Has anyone ever seen an analysis/comparison of the county services and the city services? What are the equivalents of a Nassau County resident home to a city resident home with similar valuations with services, costs, etc. The group is kicking around the idea of polling and publicizing the area’s non-city residents on whether they would like to be a part of the city and pay city taxes. I think I can easily predict the outcome of that survey. Also, they’re saying the city should make public a list of projects and expenditures that were not in the original budget for this year, that resulted in “budget creep.” That should include a list of new hires – added headcount that was not in the budget – and resulting salaries/compensation.
The organization is careful to signify that it is as concerned about the local environment as any other citizen. They unanimously agree they need to be careful about not being labeled a “pave paradise and put up a parking lot” group but to illustrate that growth in the county, on the island and in the city is inevitable. A prolific number of national media outlets are citing Amelia Island and Fernandina Beach as great places to live. In addition, the Tourist Development Council is spending millions to successfully encourage visitors to the area, many who eventually buy property here. Growth is inevitable.
The overall objective of this group is to create responsible growth combined with a well-managed diverse environment.
A Fool & His Money, etc.: A couple of weeks ago I reported here that an anonymous donor had plopped down $100,000 for Fernandina Beach’s Conservation Land Trust with the promise of an additional 100 grand in matching funds if it can be raised by August 20. I suggested that the city wouldn’t get anything over $1,000 in matching cash if that much and asked why should we cough up anymore when the city’s already extorting us through our property taxes? Well rabid land conservation extremist City Commissioner Dr. Chip Ross quickly chimed in a comment here to boast that the city had already collected two $1,000 matching donations. I admit I was impressed with this local duo’s generous and speedy contribution until I learned the source of the cash. The two $1,000 checks were supplied by Dr. Ross and his wife Faith, a detail the doctor conveniently left out when bragging about the swift cash infusion toward the matching grant. Loopy Commissioner Mike “Left Coast” Lednovich says he’ll also plop down a $1,000 check in matching money. And this the week non-city resident and head of the activist Amelia Tree Conservatory Margaret Kirkland said her group would cough up $5,000. That’s fine with me if these folks want to voluntarily reach into their own wallets, but I resent these tree hugging extremists lecturing and extorting me through a property tax increase to support their cause.
The More Things Change The More They Stay The Same: Not a lot has changed since the young Jet gang members in the 1957 Broadway show “West Side Story” attempted to elicit sympathy for their law-breaking activities from beat Police Officer Krupe, explaining their behavior by singing:
My father is a bastard,
My ma’s an S.O.B.
My grandpa’s always plastered,
My grandma pushes tea.
My sister wears a mustache,
My brother wears a dress.
Goodness gracious, that’s why I’m a mess!
Ever since the 1950s sociologist do-gooders and government agency bureaucrats have used a variety of silly, meaningless phrases to describe what are in simple, realistic terms — “bad kids.” They’ve gone from silly to stupid as if they could correct a pattern of youthful criminal behavior by just describing it in different terms. For example, when I was a teenager, the black-leather jacketed, duck-tailed haircut-wearing, law-breaking “hoods” were described as “juvenile delinquents.” I knew a couple of them in high school and admired their “chopped and channeled” cars, but also kept my distance. A few years following high school graduation when we still had a military draft, I was introduced to a number of them during U.S. Army basic training at Fort Jackson, SC, where judges had sentenced them to “the Army” or “jail”, a verdict that succeeded in taking the swagger out of their attitude. While juvenile bad behavior has remained the same over the years the nitwits that observe and attempt to transform these louts only change their definition e.g. “at risk”, “justice involved”, “disconnected youth”, and more recently “opportunity youth.” Linguistic terms are failing where jail and military service seem to succeed. Or as the Jets gang neatly summed it up in their West Side Story song — “Gee, Office Krupe, KRUP YOU”!
Speaking Of Dim Alienated Youth: If you’re wondering why millennials are falling all over themselves advocating U.S. Senator “Crazy Uncle Bernie” Sanders for president, it’s because the education system has failed them. In other words, they’re dim. Only 16 percent are financially literate says a report by the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America’s (TIAA) College Retirement Equities Fund Institute. According to the report these kids have only a basic grasp of finances–which explains why they are leaning towards Sanders. And Sanders’s Florida team is taking advantage of their ignorance by heavily targeting university areas, especially in the Orlando area which includes the University of Central Florida (UCF) and which continues to see an influx of new, younger residents. Many UCF students and younger Floridians support Sanders due to his calls for free college and healthcare. When these not very bright kids hear that they won’t have to pay for any of the “free” things they want, they actually believe “wealthy folks” are going to pay for them. “For people who have no clue or even the basic understanding on how money works, yes, I could see why they would be attractive to Bernie,” said Steve Beaman, a financial analyst for Florida Daily. Beaman said that if states like Florida would require a financial literacy education requirement, younger voters would probably think twice before supporting a candidate like Sanders. Burns said that if younger voters have no understanding of money and economics, they will be more attracted to socialism and other far-left economic positions. “The only wakeup call younger voters may have is if Bernie does become president, then they will see more of their paychecks become smaller to pay for these utopian ideas,” adds Beaman.
RIP, The Boy of Summer: Of all the books I’ve read over the years, ranging from the classics and annual best sellers to trashy science fiction and historic epics, one of my all-time favorites is Roger Kahn’s 1972 tome, “The Boys of Summer,” a book about a baseball team (the Brooklyn Dodgers) that no longer exists by a reporter for a long-gone newspaper (New York Herald Tribune). The book is more than a “where-are-they-now” tale of some of baseball’s greatest players and events, but the story of an American era — the late 1940’s, the 1950’s and in particular 1952-53. You don’t have to like or even know anything about baseball to enjoy this well-crafted book. I’ve read and reread the book and given it as a gift many times. Sadly, I learned that the author, former sportswriter, Kahn, passed away recently at 92.
Those Were The Days: Since my emergency gall bladder extraction in January I’ve been required to visit a variety of doctors including surgeons, gastrointestinal specialists, infectious disease experts and my general practitioner. These are all dedicated, highly professional medical experts that come across as earnest, stern and concerned. When it comes to diet they’re of the Miss Grundy school of nutrition whose ruler will whack you across the knuckles when you reach for that last remaining slice of rare roast beef on the Sunday dinner table platter. It’s not that I dislike my current caretakers. They’re the kind of folks I’d like to have a beer with once they grant me permission to quaff one and if they’ll allow me to drink anything stronger than tonic water with a slice of lemon. However, I miss the doctors of my youth. One in particular stands out. I don’t recall his name, but when I was a sportswriter for the Tampa Tribune in the late 1960’s I visited him for an itchy rash on my wrist. He examined it saying he wasn’t sure what is was or what caused it, then handed me a bottle of lotion to apply to it. He then hopped up on the examining table I was sitting on and asked to bum a cigarette (I smoked in those days). As we sat there smoking he questioned me about the Miami Dolphins training camp I covered, the new football stadium planned for Tampa, and the pennant prospects of the Cincinnati Reds, which held spring training in the area. I liked him because he was funny, older than me, had a paunch, and didn’t tell me to limit my daily beer drinking habit to two glasses daily or order me to do something about my cholesterol. And he smoked. NOT ONLY IN THE OFFICE, BUT IN THE EXAMING ROOM, which had ash trays. Medical schools just don’t crank them out like they used to.
Anybody But Bernie Department: Fierce anti-Trumper, James Huffman, a professor and dean emeritus at Portland, Oregon’s Lewis & Clarke Law School, explains in a recent Wall Street Journal piece why he won’t vote for Bernie Sanders under any circumstances: “If Mr. Sanders’s socialistic agenda were to become a reality, undoing it would be nearly impossible. Once created, social-welfare programs are almost never reversed. It is a one-way ratchet to more spending, mounting debt, and growing dependence on government at the expense of individual responsibility. Lawmakers have known for decades that Social Security and Medicare are unsustainable without major reforms, but there are no reforms. Everything government does is funded by the capitalist economy that Mr. Sanders’s proposed policies would deliberately undermine. That’s why people like me may end up pulling the lever for Donald Trump.”
I Told You So! A couple of days before the U.S. stock markets realized their greatest one-day gains in history — Monday, March 2, and got another huge 1,173 point pop Wednesday, March 4 — I read a piece by a business writer whose name I can’t recall who rightly observed: “By May you will look back and say why didn’t I stay in or go back into the market back in early March.”
Local Coronavirus Impact: This morning, while standing in line at the Post Office, two people entered wearing masks. There was total panic! Then they said: “This is a robbery” and everybody calmed down.
Drinking, Dining & Dancing: To celebrate St. Patrick’s Day the day after, the Sandbar & Kitchen will hold a “Sip me I’m Irish” special event beginning at 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 18, featuring six different Irish whiskeys paired with “small bites” for $29.95 per person. Members of the Sandbar’s Whisky Club get 20 percent off. Reservations can be had by calling 904/310-3648.