(Editor’s note: Guest editorial writer Pat Keogh is an entrepreneur, businessman, lawyer and investor who owns restaurants and other properties in Fernandina Beach but fled the city for Austin, Texas due to the outrageous city fees, taxes and bureaucracy. “When the rest of the universe is trying to make it easier for business, Fernandina Beach is trying to squelch it,” Keogh said last year before taking his capital and leaving to invest it in Texas. He has since purchased a new home on Amelia Island, and intentionally avoided buying in Fernandina Beach for reasons stated below.)
We own property in both the City and the County. For an identical value we pay about 30% more in the City than the County. What do we get for that? The waterfront remains undeveloped, Eighth St. is still derelict, the downtown post office is a marginal asset, citizens have conflicts with city regulators and the City spends enormous amounts on senseless and losing law suits.
I frequently ask citizens to list the benefits they derive from Fernandina’s City government. People struggle to name just one tangible benefit they get from the City that they could not get from the County if the City government was dissolved. There will always be a Fernandina Beach community; it’s a special place. But why have an additional layer of municipal government if it delivers no value for the added cost and hassle?
So why do we have a City government? More of citizens’ real estate taxes now go to fund City government than the County. The County has held the line on tax rates and the City routinely increases the rate. The City continues to unlawfully charge impact fees which taxes progress and undermines property values. Permit fees are higher in the City than the County with building inspections less timely. The City has a police force; so does the County. The City has a fire and emergency management staff and so does the County. Parks and recreation staffs work for the City as they do for the County. The City has human resources, financial, administrative, planning, building and code enforcement personnel. The County has them too. The City has a water and sewer department; the County owns one too and also contracts for those services from a public utility. Well, the City has a cemetery, a marina and an airport and the County doesn’t. But there are plenty of reasons to believe the City does not do a good job managing those enterprises. Besides, why should local government perform these functions? Does anyone know where the boundary between the City and County is?
City government seems to be mostly a bad soap opera whose principal product is conflict, losing litigation and creating positions for people who control the government. If there were a citywide survey asking “which government is run best; the City of Fernandina Beach or Nassau County” does anyone think the City would win?
Look, it’s always a problem comparing where you came from to your current home. It begs the question; “if it was so good there then why did you move?” Well, for starters, it was cold and grey there much of the year. With that said, we moved to Fernandina after living in McLean, Virginia for many years. McLean, the home of the CIA and many Washington luminaries, is a prosperous town of about 50,000 in Fairfax County. Folks there are proud to be residents of McLean. Every road into the town has a “Welcome to McLean” sign. Residents think being part of McLean is a good thing. Property values in McLean are high. It has a Citizens Association with representatives from the various homeowner associations in town. It has a Chamber of Commerce and a Community Center whose Board is elected on McLean Day, the annual celebration of the local community kind of like the Shrimp Festival. The McLean community has outstanding schools and it has police and fire stations but no police or fire department. It even has an historic district just like Fernandina. McLean also has a representative on the Fairfax County Board. What McLean does not have is a municipal government. All local public services are provided by Fairfax County. In all the years we lived there I never remember anyone even suggesting that citizens would be better served with an added layer of municipal government. No one sees the prospect of a municipal government as adding value to community life.
We made Fernandina our primary home about ten years ago. We did that for lots of reasons including the enormous opportunities we thought we saw. There was a derelict waterfront and a City gateway on 8th St desperately in need of redevelopment. There was a downtown post office begging to be repositioned. For a small town there seemed to be opportunities everywhere we looked. We tried some development deals and got some things done but at the enormous cost of dealing with an ineffectual City government. After awhile we stopped doing projects in the City. The reason things do not get done in Fernandina is because of the enormous cost and friction involved in dealing with City government. Our capital and talent are mobile. They go where we can achieve results. Most folks like us eventually figure out that’s not Fernandina.
As I think about government in Fernandina the provocative question of management guru Peter Drucker comes to mind; “If you did not do it yesterday would you do it today?” Would you? If Fernandina Beach did not already have a City government would you choose to create one? Why do 10,000 citizens need a municipal government that costs so much and creates no real value for its citizens? Is it simply a matter of habit that residents continue it or a lack of energy to put it out of its misery? Why do County residents fight so hard to avoid annexation into the City? They act like so many Ukrainians responding to the welcoming embrace of Vladmir Putin. They have that reaction despite the City’s inducement of a 25% reduction in their water and sewer bills that come with annexation? Is it simply that they see no value in the added taxes, fees and regulation imposed to support a dysfunctional City government? I have a colleague in the local restaurant business who says that whenever he interacts with city officials they always seem to have their hand out. And it’s not a helping hand.
Folks in McLean have a strong sense of community pride and identity without a city government. Why would it be different for Fernandina? Take my test yourself. Try to compile a list of any value created for you by the City government. Then add up the costs and hassle and, knowing that all public services could be delivered by Nassau County, answer the question for yourself. Is it worth having a City government? Make no mistake about it; Fernandina is a wonderful community. It has fabulous natural resources, a terrific climate, wonderful assets but it is ill served by its government.
One final thought. It’s not all bad. The City has superb trash collection service in the downtown area. Those guys work very hard and their price is right. Follow them as they make their rounds and it is a thing of beauty. That service is contracted out and should be kept. And, I have never heard a complaint about the City-owned and operated Bosque Bello Cemetery. But then all the clients there are, in the words of Yogi Berra, deceased.
Another Fernandina election will not make a difference. I think Fernandina would be a much better, more competitive place if it dissolved its City government; it serves no purpose.
Patrick J. Keogh can be contacted at email@example.com or 703.790.8471
Questions The Media Don’t Ask: “Where is the more affordable health insurance? What happened to health care becoming more accessible? Where is the $2,500 in annual health insurance savings promised to American families? What of all those old insurance coverage plans Americans were supposed to be able to keep? And the guarantee that Americans could keep their doctors?” asks friend Benita Dodd, Vice President of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
Falling Numbers Are Rising: Car accidents are the leading cause of accidental American deaths annually. The second leading cause of accidental deaths in this country as reported by an article by the Welcome Trust in MosaicScience.com came as a surprise. Falls! Worldwide 420,000 people die each year after falling. In the U.S. falls cause 32,000 fatalities a year (more than four times the number caused by drowning and fires combined). And as you age the numbers get worse. Falls are the leading cause of death by injury of folks over 60 and for those 80 and older, it rises to 50 percent. And, adds the article, nearly three times as many people die in the U.S. after falling as are murdered by firearms. Falls are even more significant as a cause of injury with more patients heading to the emergency room after falling than from any other type of mishap. And the most dangerous spots for falls to occur are not from a roof, a tree, or a cliff, but everyday life: shower stalls, supermarket aisles, and stairways. Even falling out of bed can change a life profoundly says the article, taking someone from robust health to grave disability in less than one second. “It’s not the fall that gets you,” an old skydiving joke goes. “It’s the sudden stop at the bottom.”
Marriage Benefits: Syndicated columnist Star Parker comments on the decline of marriage in America and cites “modern research that shows that individuals who are married are wealthier, healthier and happier.” Recent research points to married men earning at least $15,900 more annually than single men; for black men, this “marriage premium” is $12,500. Source: Patriot Post as reported by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
Drinking, Dining & Dancing: I had an opportunity to get an advance peek at the newly opened Down Under and taste some of its offerings this past weekend and can say that locals and visitors who remember the McCarthy Family’s famed eatery and bar will be very pleased with what Ernie Saltmarsh has done, which is to replicate the Florida Intracoastal site that was converted by Harley and Alice McCarthy in 1982 from a fish camp to a restaurant. Ernie wanted to maintain the homey “fish camp” like atmosphere and has restored the site to what the McCarthy’s say is their dad Harley’s legacy. One of the guests the afternoon I visited was Alice McCarthy,94, and several other members of the McCarthy family, who were all generous in their praise for what Ernie has done with the facility. They’ve even brought by memorabilia from the original and it is scattered throughout. One of the Down Under’s charming features is the mish-mash architecture that includes interior and exterior windows of all sizes, odd room sizes, and additions that look like they were afterthoughts. They were. Cecilia McCarthy tells me that when her husband Kevin was building homes he’d bring over scraps and they would add them to the building. Ernie kept that funky look and feel and added a little polish. Visitors will also spot some very familiar faces among the staff as it appears that Ernie and his General Manager Mitch Murray have cherry-picked top talent from a number of area eateries and bars including Assistant General Manager Sheri Murphy (Brett’s, PLAE), Executive Chef Matt Kennedy (Florida House), Sous Chef Joe Bees (Murray’s Grill, Salty Pelican, Oyster Bay Yacht Club) personable bartenders George Morris and Thaxton Rowe, Bar Manager Smitty Smith (Salty Pelican, The Tavern), and many servers folks will certainly recognize. The menu contains the most authentic and varied seafood selection of any restaurant in the area. With the exception of wings, chips, and jalapeno poppers, the nine appetizer selections are all seafood including a wallet pleasing one-half pound of peel-and-eat-shrimp for just $9.00. And 13 of the 17 entrees are seafood ranging from the delicious McCarthy recipe Signature Grouper Monterey ($22.00) and cast iron seared scallops ($20.00) to crab cakes ($18.00) and three shrimp selections and fish & chips ($16.00). Dungeness, snow and king crab are all listed as is a huge seafood platter ($24.00 and $48.00 for two) If you want a steak (filet mignon or ribeye), chicken or a burger they are also available and from what I heard from other diners who ordered them, exceptionally good. Selections of oysters include raw, steamed, fried, Rockefeller, steamed in a bucket and a special Down Under style. Five of the nine sandwiches include soft shell crab, fish and shrimp tacos, iron seared Ahi tuna, shrimp and oyster Po Boys as well as a salmon BLT, and fresh catch on a brioche. Soups are a shrimp and bacon bisque and soup of the day – gumbo when we visited. Sides are all just $3.00 and plentiful, featuring hushpuppies, cheese grits, fries (regular and sweet), baked regular and sweet potatoes, collards, coleslaw, in-season vegetables and more. There is a $6.00 kids menu with shrimp, burgers, chicken tenders, fish and grilled cheese. All seafood is fresh and locally sourced. Kids, and most adults, will also enjoy watching the boats and trains go by as well as eyeballing the giant saltwater aquarium as much as I did. There are also the occasional alligator, sea otter, dolphins, sea turtles and exotic birds hanging around outside. Tonight Sean McCarthy and his group will play on the deck which features a tiki bar, and tomorrow, Saturday, Oct. 7, Dan Voll & Michelle Anders will perform noon until 4. Ernie says there’ll be music every weekend at the full bar site. Folks, this place is a winner and expect jam-packed and fun crowds. I can only imagine what the Georgia-Florida weekend will look like there. Down Under is located under the Shave Bridge, at 36106 Wades Place, A1A Intracoastal Waterway. Call ’em at 904/310-6211 or go to downunderfb.com. Darren Allen and Sandy Lynn were married on Amelia Island in 1995 when Darren was working for the Ritz Carlton as a pastry chef. Darren and his bride moved to California when the Ritz transferred him and he eventually worked for a number of other hotels, opened and sold his own bakery, and was employed by Panera Bread for some 10 years. Last year tragedy struck when wife Sandy was taken by cancer. Before she passed away she unselfishly encouraged her husband to find happiness. In his grief he tried a variety of things ranging from church mission work to traveling and visiting friends. During this time he returned to Fernandina Beach, a place they both loved, and discovered that the Island Time Frozen Yogurt business at 306 Centre Street was for sale and purchased it. Darren’s business is appropriately named Sweet Sandy Lynn LLC.