Borrow $25 Million? Or Adopt Strategy Of “Pay As You Go, Stay Out Of Debt”

Will city of Fernandina Beach taxpayers support borrowing $25 million-plus for a sea wall and downtown projects?

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

— Steve’s Marketplace —

You hoped any forward-thinking Fernandina Beach official learned from this futile exercise. Apparently, this is not so. The city’s latest ambition is to borrow a weighty $25 million for a sea wall and ancillary downtown projects.

The brainstorm occurred at the annual visioning session last week. The vision of city leaders is apparently blurred. Why would residents then or now support borrowing a bunch of money for projects nobody wants or needs? 

Anyhow, city officials should have learned a lesson in taxation from our school district. School officials just sold voters a special one-mill property tax to help pay for and recruit teachers. Or so voters thought.

It turns out the one-mill rate will generate substantially more taxes than promised. And the school district will keep it all. To add insult, only part of the newfound money will go toward teachers.

Whipsawed city voters could now be asked to approve another spending spree they won’t fully understand. The wording of ballot referendums is as easy to understand as an open southern border. 

The fallout from the Forward Fernandina follies was significant. Two commissioners behind the failed plan were whisked from office. Voted in were Charley Corbett and Sarah Pelican, who both ran against the pie-in-the-sky projects.

Likewise, there could be heavy political fallout from the miscommunicated school tax, or from the latest round of unrealistic city borrowing. History often repeats itself.

And the city details are sketchy. Does the short concrete wall south of the marina constitute a resilient “sea wall” to prevent flooding? Let’s recall Hurricane Ivan. The 20-foot storm surge knocked down the I-10 bridge crossing the bay in Pensacola. A stubby concrete structure like our sea wall would be ineffective.     

Fernandina Beach waterfront -- view looking north toward Brett's from river walkway & seawall (built 2021-2022) along city marina's south basin adjacent to parking lots C & D). Photo by
DOWNTOWN FERNANDINA WATERFRONT — View looking north toward Brett’s from river walkway & sea wall (built 2021-2022) along city marina’s south basin adjacent to parking lots C & D. (Photo by

Revitalizing downtown is another objective. Why aren’t city workers regularly maintaining downtown? Updating the infrastructure. Decorating and tidying. Mulching and planting.

After all, abundant tax revenues are pouring in each year. There’s plenty of free money already, without borrowing.

And the price tag of the new deal is troubling, especially at today’s high interest rates. The city borrowed $6 million to restore the 300-acre Egans Creek Greenway. However, the proposed project does not resonate like the greenway concept, and costs four times as much.

The city issued municipal bonds to pay for the greenway. This can be a complicated and costly process. City officials are moving in this direction again.

In preparation, the city has paid nearly $200,000 for a renewed downtown design. We’ve gone down this wasteful path before. The city could fill a library with all the previous designs and projections and studies.

Here’s a counter brainstorm. Let’s adopt the fiscal strategy endorsed by John Crawford, one of our finest elected officials. As clerk and comptroller, Crawford oversees the massive county budget. His simple strategy: Pay as you go; stay out of debt.

To the contrary, the city continually promotes big-ticket projects. Instead of building new and expensive things, let’s maintain what we have. Our amenities are stellar. Yet we build another park for $600,000 on Simmons Road that no one uses.

This one is the granddaddy of all city projects, however. Of the $25 million debt, about $15 million is for the waterfront, with $10 million for revitalizing downtown. The revitalization portion will include new lighting, landscaping, paving. 

Actually, downtown looks plenty nice right now. The 700,000 visitors coming to Amelia Island each year approve of it. The existing design works. 

In another prior boondoggle, city officials proposed closing off the first block of Centre Street so only pedestrians could pass through it, not cars. This silly movement fizzled like a holiday firework, fortunately.

To complicate matters even more, the proposed borrowing will easily surpass $25 million. You can make a Hollywood Hard Rock Casino bet on it. Listen to the conversations.

“We will get better financial data once they are through with their design,” says acting City Manager Charles George.

In other words, this is going to cost a bundle. But will residents pay the lofty price, over many years?


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 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.