Why Not Shrink City Government And Excess Spending?

Doing more with less would be enterprising approach.

Editor’s note: Contributing columnist, Steve Nicklas, expresses his views and insight on various topics in Marketplace.

— Steve’s Marketplace —

If the new Fernandina Beach commissioners feel obligated by their predecessors’ decisions, they will be relegated to failure.

The preceding commission has driven the city into a brick wall of financial shortcomings, by adhering to a tax-and-spend (un)discipline. The current commission must take a starkly different direction.  

Removing the city manager is a heady decision, but the integral body of the staff remains. It’s a legacy of excess. So institute a hiring freeze. And halt, or defer, the incessant and expensive projects.  

The financial outlays contain a lot of zeroes. There is $5 million for constructing a new fire station, $1.2 million for a ladder truck, another $1 million for improvements at the Peck Center, with a $1 million outlay to open Alachua Street. City officials have discussed renovating the Atlantic Avenue Recreation Center, with estimates pushing $2 million. Meanwhile, no one really knows what it would cost for a proposed sea wall (but it would likely be more than these recent projects added together). 

So when outspoken commissioner Chip Ross says there is no money to power the lights on Citrona Drive, he’s correct. In a limited, bureaucratic way of thinking. 

Here is a fresh idea. Why not shrink the city’s government, and its accompanying $120 million budget (it’s something astronomical like that). Some 60 full-time employees have been hired in recent years, with 140 new vehicles purchased. Do government agencies ever employ frugal strategies like cutbacks, layoffs, etc. heading into a likely recession? 

So far, this hasn’t happened here. Meanwhile, it’s business as usual, with the right-hand-man from the previous city manager now running things.

The city building department is still charging exorbitant fees, and officials are digging in their heels. A lawsuit from respected builder Ron Flick over $450,000 he was charged in permit/impact fees has merit. Like other actions, the new commissioners own these now – unless they do something about it.

The quickest way to become a one-term commissioner is to do what their Nassau County peers just did. To not listen to your constituents (regarding a proposed high-rise development on the south end). While the latest city commissioners have vowed to revamp the oppressive building department, nothing has changed in the five months since the election.

Doing more with less is an enterprising approach. Four of the city commissioners ran on this conservative concept (outlier Ross has not embraced it). Scale back departments, rather than add to them. Outsource duplicate city services to the county. Scrutinize any spending for savings.

And roll back the property-tax rate in the new budget – it would be the first time in years. Despite abundant inflows of tax receipts, city officials have failed in this fiscally responsible strategy.

In a public-records request for the city’s debt and its servicing, it took seven days to get a response. And worse yet, the response was a confusing financial statement produced by a company paid by the city. In this long-winded report, the Table of Contents was three pages.

Not only are debts an issue in the city’s financial condition, but there are also unfunded future liabilities. For instance, with the city’s pension fund. Meanwhile the city is overrun with unnecessary assets, to the tune of $100 million in value. By the way, these don’t generate tax revenues.

Ironically, city commissioners fired the previous city manager for undisciplined spending, clouded transparency and lackluster communication. Commissioners are spending $40,000 or more to hire a search firm, and are considering paying the new city manager $50,000 more than his predecessor.

Therefore, in efforts to rein in spending, commissioners are spending $100,000 to replace the old city manager. How about hiring someone locally and saving that $100,000? It can be couched as an obligation to local residents.


Steve Nicklas is the managing partner of Nicklas Wealth Management in Fernandina Beach. He is also an award-winning columnist. His columns also regularly appear in weekly newspapers in Northeast Florida and in Southeast Georgia, and on his website at www.SteveNicklasMarketplace.com. He has published a book, “All About Money,” of his favorite columns from the past 20 years. The book is available on Amazon. He has also done financial reports for area radio stations and for National Public Radio in Jacksonville. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at 904-753-0236.