Common Sense, the recently created Fernandina Beach watchdog group, sent the local media the opinion piece “The $12 million Elephant In The Room” (below) about the marina situation this week.
As you read it consider that Common Sense is not a single-issue activist group prone to rants, shouting down speakers, parading in front of city hall, holding rallies, shaking their fists, waving signs, and hollering catchy slogans. It’s a diverse group of concerned Fernandina Beach residents that discovered they have a “common concern” – the out-of-control, unexplained spending of their tax money by five elected city commissioners and their hired city manager.
Each member of Common Sense is a Fernandina Beach resident, property owner, and tax payer. These volunteers consist of business people, former government officials, university instructors, retired journalists and more. They are well educated, successful, and work just as hard at uncovering city government waste as the city government does in attempting to hide it. Their research is zealous, thorough, time consuming and revealing.
The downtown marina — severely damaged by Hurricane Matthew in October 2016 — became an early focus point for Common Sense. Efforts to get straight answers and information from City Manager Dale Martin proved futile. They conducted research through interviews with affected parties, public records, and Freedom of Information Act requests, a tedious, time consuming task that involved pouring through hundreds and hundreds of pages of mind-numbingly boring documents.
What they uncovered was that Martin appears to be a Las Vegas-style high roller who dragged a trio of bimbos (Chip Ross, Johnny Miller, Phil Chapman) along who didn’t understand what they were seeing and adoringly watched as he blindly gambled that FEMA would reimburse the city. He tossed the dice and went ahead with an extravagant marina rebuilding effort before FEMA committed, which proved to be a massive financial mistake that now leaves city tax payers on the hook for $12 million or more. Roy Smith, a man who was a construction executive prior to retirement, was the only commissioner voting “no”. He was rewarded with defeat in the last election. Go figure.
Here’s the details, uncovered by Common Sense. It’s not opinion. It’s not speculation. It’s not hearsay. It’s factual. After you read it you should be outraged.
Common Sense is also meeting with City Commission candidates and will publicly endorse those they consider worthy of your vote. It’s also looking at next year’s budget proceedings. Stay tuned.
OPINION – JUNE 8, 2020
The $12 Million Elephant in the Room
Fernandina Beach taxpayers are on the hook for a whopping $12 million dollar debt — based on decisions made by City leaders — about repairs to the Fernandina Harbor Marina. You will pay for this somehow.
Our City leaders pledged money to repair and upgrade portions of the Fernandina Harbor Marina before obtaining a final FEMA commitment. In essence we tried to replace a used Volkswagen with a new Mercedes-Benz and it didn’t work. The City leadership mishandled this.
City Manager Martin claims he is “optimistic” that an appeal to FEMA will reverse a recent ruling to pay only a small percentage of the project’s cost. We are not optimistic, nor should you be. And we warn the City Commission from waving the magic millage-rate wand to cover up this terrible mess.
Based on Freedom of Information Act requests (FOIA) of FEMA documents, emails between the City Manager and FEMA officials and several interviews, Common Sense asserts the following:
- FEMA’s review identified several problems with the initial analysis, and invalidated it. A new analysis was undertaken.
- This new analysis determined that, under the 50% Rule, only repairs and reasonable costs could be reimbursed using Public Assistance funds.
- No written assurances were given to the City as the early work was not approved formally by FEMA.
- The Fernandina Beach City Commission, in August 2018, voted to approve a line of credit (anyway) of up to $6.6 million to pay for marina repair and upgrades. In a nutshell the City went out on a limb financing the marina southern attenuator without formal commitment from FEMA. Now FEMA will only allow much lower funding, adding to the City’s marina debt liability by $5,796,827.00, the amount FEMA has refused to pay.
This puts current marina debt total in excess of $12 million*. This is on an operation that perennially loses money. The value of the Fernandina Harbor Marina, as a business, would be roughly $2 million (+/-) to an investor, according to knowledgeable marina owners and operators who Common Sense spoke to.
Here is the timeline:
- October 2016 Hurricane Matthew
- May 2017 Bellingham gives cost estimate for Northern and Southern Attenuators.
- October 9, 2017 the City of Fernandina Beach received approval from FEMA to proceed with 10 minor REPAIRS to the Fernandina Harbor Marina related to Hurricane Matthew.
- December 19, 2017 FB City Commission marina discussion (from official meeting minutes):
- Commissioner Smith reminded all that doing any repair work prior to receiving FEMA money will not be approved.
- Commissioner Chapman stated that the City Marina needs to attract bigger boats that will spend more money locally. Noting there is a cost to doing business and there will be a return on investment. He stated dragging out the process because FEMA won’t reimburse is not the answer and suggested being more forward thinking.
- June 2018 the Fender Marine contract was awarded.
- August 7, 2018 Commission Meeting official minutes: The City Commission unanimously passed a resolution authorizing a line of credit up to $6.6 million to fund capital improvements including certain IMPROVEMENTS to the Fernandina Harbor Marina. The city resolution stated the note is a limited obligation of the City payable from “certain FEMA reimbursement” – AND FROM NON-AD VALOREM REVENUES BUDGETED AND APPROPRIATED.
- September 2018 FEMA re-inspects damage and prepares estimates.
- April 2020 New estimate prepared with published results.
- May 28, 2020 FEMA informs the City of its final appraisal, denying most of the fund request for the southern dock/attenuator – denying $5,796,827.00 of the $6,421,595.00 applied for by the City.
- June 3, 2020 City Manager informs commission of the FEMA denial.
What can you do? Contact your city officials and demand they explain how they plan to fix this. Will they add to the already high millage rate? Will they finance with long-term debt? Ask them how it will show up in your taxes. Or, better, where else in the City budget – reserves, operating costs – they plan to find the money and eliminate this debt.
This is YOUR money that has been gambled away. It’s time to speak up!
City Manager Dale Martin. email@example.com
Mayor John Miller. firstname.lastname@example.org
Vice Mayor Len Kreger. email@example.com
Commissioner Phil Chapman. firstname.lastname@example.org
Commissioner Mike Lednovich. email@example.com
Commissioner Chip Ross. firstname.lastname@example.org
Common Sense is a citizen’s group focused on good government, transparency and financial responsibility in Fernandina Beach. For more information about Common Sense:
Jack Knocke – (470) 295-4365. Email: email@example.com
Frank Quigley – (312) 259-1741. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Feel free to post on our Facebook page: Common Sense Fernandina www.facebook.com/commonsenseFB/ and follow our web-site: http://www.commonsensefb.org/
*Pre-existing Fernandina Harbor Marina debt; A pre-Hurricane Matthew capital refunding note of $3,528,000.00 A line of Credit #2 for northern attenuator repairs/replacement anticipated at $2,290,000.00. The anticipated 2019-2020 budget deficit of $372,081.00. The utility Fund transfers (intergovernmental loan) of $3,800,000.00.
More Common Sense: Common Sense member Jack Knocke sent the following statement to the City Commission last week. I have no idea if it was read at the proceedings, but I thought it important enough to print it here. It details how difficult it is for a citizen to get straight answers out of government officials on how they spend our money.
Because of limited seating and limited comments at the June 2 meeting, please read these comments into the record on my behalf.
My comments tonight relate to the current budget process. Last year when I spoke to this commission about the budget, it was “too late” because decisions were made. This year, I would like to get ahead of the process.
Commissioners state that the city is open and transparent, yet when we ask the city manager about his plans are for the budget, we get only platitudes, vague statements, and little indication of direction.
We requested the guidance that was given to department heads by the City Manager. His guidance was apparently only verbal, because he has not shared any written guidance that was provided to the staff.
To satisfy our public records request, the city provided a 200+ page data dump of the journal entries as of May 7 for the departmental budgets. The city attorney confirmed that all budget documents are public documents, but we have yet to receive anything other than a data dump from May 7.
My ask of the City Commissioners is to provide guidance to the City Manager on the 2020/2021 budget to start with a budget that starts with the mil rate of 4.48048 which would have been last year’s rollback rate before the 32% increase in the mil rate. If the rate is kept consistent with the current rate (excluding the one-time conservation .5 mil last year) taxes still go up because property values once again went up between 6 and 9%. Recognize that residents have experienced a particularly challenging start to 2020 with COVID, lost jobs, lost revenues, and a challenging outlook. This is a time that the city could go a long way to help citizens who need a break.
With the recent tax hikes, recognize that the city has increased spending dramatically and built reserves of $7 million (beyond the $4 million recommended). Extra tax money is used to cover costly mistakes like Amelia Bluff litigation, 20% increase in city staff, $250k beach cleaning bill, lack of effective county service coordination, and a challenged relationship with FEMA that could cost the city $15 million in un-reimbursed repairs at the marina.
We need to focus our 2020/2021 budget on meeting capital improvement needs and efficient operational management. This requires prioritization of the highest needs for in the upcoming year and less kicking the can. It also requires conservative operational budgeting that eliminates waste, trims non-essential activities, leverages coordination of services with the county, and drives key city and resident priorities.
Would you each be willing to have the City Manager deliver a budget based on the 4.48048 roll back rate from last year as a starting point? This is a reasonable approach to an effective budgeting process.
Jack Knocke, city resident
Headline of the Week: “Drew Brees Sets New NFL Record For Number Of Apologies” – Babylon Bee.
“Hey, Sven I Think You Took A Wrong Turn At Iceland!” According to a new book “The Year 1000” by Valerie Hansen, the Vikings were way ahead of everybody else when it came to globalization, landing in North America more than one thousand years ago. Even more astonishing, the book claims that the curious Vikings probably made it all the way to the Yucatan Peninsula. Murals in ruins there depict Viking-like boats and their yellow-haired, light-skinned captives being sacrificed by the Mayans. Tourists headed there 1,000 years later can expect the same treatment from Mexican drug dealers.
Things I Wish I’d Said: “X AE A-12? Isn’t that more of a girl’s name?” – “National Review” Magazine commenting on Elon Musk and his girlfriend Grimes about the choice of a name for their newborn son.”
Cleaning Up: Following the virus pandemic many households will be chock-a-block full of more containers of hand sanitizer than they’ll have hands to sanitize. So, what to do with all that liquid soap? Here are a few thoughts that I’ve read about and a couple I’ve tried effectively. Polish your silver — the stuff cuts through tarnish quickly. Clean eyeglasses – it removes fingerprints, hair spray and more. Use as a deodorant – it kills underarm germs effectively. Use instead of dry shampoo – squeeze a bit on your fingertips and massage gently into hair roots. Get permanent marker off white boards – write over the marker on the whiteboard with a dry-eraser, then wipe with hand sanitizer. Treat stains before laundering – rub sanitizer in and let it sit for one to three minutes. Clean your keyboard, mouse, touchscreen, and touch-pad – use a microfiber cloth. I wonder of the loud crowd of extreme environmentalists know that hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment come from hydrocarbons created by the hated “big oil” companies?
March Of Ignorance: The not-for-long last print newspaper in the area, the News Leader, headlined its Page 1 lead story this past Wednesday “March against violence”, an article that had nothing to do with anything that took place in Fernandina Beach or on Amelia Island or anyplace nearby. It described a small group of mostly young locals who walked around town holding signs complaining about causes about which they are clearly clueless. One sign quoted that great social scientist – Jimi Hendrix. Why are these folks upset about the death of one man in Minneapolis — George Floyd — and yet they never take to the streets to protest the murder of thousands of black men by other black men in Jacksonville, Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, New York, Detroit, Baltimore, etc.? The majority of the article quoted a young local black man. He didn’t mention that the Great Society programs enacted some 55 years ago under Democrats have spent trillions of dollars on welfare, Medicaid, public housing, rent subsidies, federal aid to public schools, food stamps, and more have all been dismal failures. Since the 1960’s the Democrats or “progressives” are so embarrassed by their failures that they are new blaming them on something called “white privilege.” Mr. Floyd was murdered by a white man wearing a blue uniform. But that’s a rare event, whereas the large number of senseless black-on-black murders that take place in our nation’s big cities are commonplace. The paper never mentioned that in 2019 the reason blacks die of homicides at eight times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined is criminal violence. The article and the inside editorial by Editor Peg Davis — who claims her “white privilege is well-documented” — never mentioned the fact that when police pullback, black communities suffer the most. When police legitimacy is undermined chaos ensues. The rioting and anarchy the past week is an example. You’d think they would be more concerned about preventing a thousand murders than just marching about one. Why didn’t the News Leader ask? The hapless newspaper announced recently that it is selling its Ash Street building and moving. Where? The paper didn’t say, but my bet is it’s only going one place — down the tubes. It’s down to one section, ads are rapidly dwindling, it’s far-left editor Davis, has alienated the mostly conservative community it serves, and its circulation is declining faster than Ms. Davis’s popularity at the local American Legion and VFW Posts or the Nassau County Republican Party HQ. If the paper survives to the end of the year I’ll be surprised.
Public Service Announcement: “Due to the virus, all riots need to be by mail. Ship a brick through Amazon and the driver will throw it through a window of your choice. We’re in this together.”
Well I hope everyone is happier, now that they’ve vented, and responded to Dave’s Drivel. See you at the march, where we will be arm in arm, black and white, together.
Hey Dave, nice column this week without all of the political stuff that you usually espouse . Yes, the marina is and will be a problem until the City comes up with a workable plan to pay off the debt. We all know other problem areas of the City, What we don’t know is the answers. It’d be nice if in your column you would write about those answers and maybe even provide your readers with a little background on the candidates for the City Commission including what they feel are some of the answers.
Great review of City financial position. Amazing that with all this important information of the cities debt service none of our community lefties, harbingers of looney ideas want to take a stance and support their own Commissioners.
Thank you Frank for your response. For those not familiar, the City’s lease of the “Brett’s” property is not with the owners of Brett’s, but with the Centre Street Restaurant Group. The lease currently in effect was executed in January, 1997 and expires on 12/1/2025. At that time, the property reverts to the City except for the furnishings. Of course, if the City takes over the property, it assumes full responsibility for the maintenance of the building including the support pilings underneath.
As rent, Brett’s pays CSRG 6% (600 basis points) of their gross revenues. CSRG then pays the City 5% of the 6% or 30 basis points (.3 %) of the gross. Supposedly, representatives of the city claim there was a misunderstanding and thought the City was going to receive 5% of the gross and CSRG would keep the remaining 1% of gross. However, Appendix J of the lease agreement shows an example of the rent calculation and it is clear that the current payment calculation is correct.
Regardless, my understanding is that the rent payments are placed in the General Fund as it has been the long policy that revenue from the uplands portion of the river goes to the General Fund and not the Marina enterprise fund.
If you pull up the posts during the election I tried to get people to see the truth about Chip Ross but he was voted in anyway. As the old saying goes be careful what you wish for. You might just get it. You got a commission that loves spending others money and a town manager that needs to be removed. Be careful with the new candidates. They make a lot of promises when running but have difficulty delivering once they see the pot of tax dollars they have to spend.
Dave thank you that, It is a very informative article.
It is factual and well stated and I’m sure it took a lot of work to put together. Hopefully many will question the actions of the City, as they should, and usually don’t do until it’s too late.
With respect to protests and riots and looting I’m sure most would agree that those who break the law, loot and burn down buildings should be held accountable and punished.
I’m also sure most would agree that the peaceful protesters have the absolute right to assemble and let their voices be heard.
Unfortunately the death of George Floyd
became a stain on American values seen all over the world.
You’re absolutely right blacks are getting killed in Chicago and other cities every single day. The differences being when you see the police, who is sworn to serve and protect, murder somebody on live TV it causes outrage, the kind we haven’t seen in years. Blacks have been treated bad by some police offerers for years but, it wasn’t until a video captured Rodney King being beaten then followed up by those offices being acquitted that allowed the American people to actually see Injustice live on TV. I’m sure you remember the result of that verdict.
Hopefully the death of Mr Floyd will be a wake-up call for all of us and a big wake-up call for all police departments to hold their own accountable.
I’m sure by now you know that are island it’s about to be invaded buy those attending the GOP convention in Jacksonville. Hotel rooms are being booked, car services are being reserved and I think we’re about to get ready for one big party. I hope everybody keeps in mind, as in any big event, that the visitors who come to our island, after they have spent their money and enjoyed our city, will all leave. My worry is (what) will they leave behind. To everyone, please stay safe, social distance,and wear your mask.
To answer Dave Lott’s question. Common Sense is currently focused on understanding the City’s FY2020-2021 budget plan. We do not see any indication of a rollback rate or any provisions to be prudent with City spending. Since 2010 City population has grown by just under 15% but City tax intake has increased by 193%. That is not a damnation statement, but a simple fact and it begs the question. Based on millage increases and property value increases – the tax take is up. We hope the City can tap the brakes right now, and see how the economy actually works out for the remainder of this year – and next. The marina debt is not something to be swept under the rug and impacts our City finances. Regarding the marina – we are in the process of forming a Marina Working Group to make a proposal. For the marina – as a discrete business – it will be difficult to scale (# of wet slips) and putting dry storage slips seems difficult. So the marina as a business could hopefully get to break even or a little better. When Brett’s lease expires in a few years it needs to be renegotiated with better terms for the City, of course. That said, there need to be other revenue-generating opportunities – and the perpetual challenge of working with (not against) downtown merchants. So we will take the time and put in the work before we make proposals. That said, it seems that the debt load will remain a problem due to the marina run-rate and probable run-rate once it is fully completed and with a fuel dock. We hope the City will operate the marina at “full capacity” for at least six months to establish the revenue run-rate, before making long-term financial projections.
Sadly, I stopped watching main stream news, and reading the newspapers, too. The news is always bad, depressing, and terribly biased against the interests of average folk like me.
The Common Sense challenge on the 2020-21 budget is spot on and it will be particularly interesting to see how lame duck commissioners Chapman and Miller respond.
A challenge I put to the folks at Common Sense is what is YOUR proposed solution for the marina? You state ” This is on an operation that perennially loses money. The value of the Fernandina Harbor Marina, as a business, would be roughly $2 million (+/-) to an investor …”. Not a very positive financial outlook. There were no financially viable takers back years ago when the City put out an RFP for either a management or acquisition option. You have a premier marina management company (Westrec) currently managing the marina. Expectations seem to be to have it generating revenue as if it is full-service resort, when in fact the dredging and constrained space issues will always be major limiting factors. So what is the plan? Walk the Walk and don’t just Talk the Talk.
The “News Leader” is part of the CNI (Community Newspapers Incorporated) also operating many town and small city papers mostly throughout Georgia, Florida and a few other southern locales. I wrote a bi-monthly entertainment/humor column called “From The Not So Perfect Mind Of” yours truly for The Dahlonega Nugget which also is part of that CNI network of papers. The differences of the two “local” papers is drastic. Where the Nugget stays ‘home’ (which has increased circulation and advertising revenue) with mostly local news and editorials the News Leader editorial page has ‘evolved’ into a left-wing sounding board for national affairs including the cartoon. I dare to say that the opposite has happened here with our ‘local’ paper regarding circulation/revenue. I dropped my subscription 4 years back (along with the Times Union). Obviously I’m not the only one. Footnote…The most important column in my opinion was/is Steve Nicklaus’ financial information. Have a good day. See all at PJD’S.