Three people each got something from the Apalachicola city commissioners Tuesday night.
Robin and Mike Vroegop got a lease deal for the Harbormaster House at Scipio Creek, but they didn’t want it.
Mayor Van Johnson got approval to create a city manager position, which he very much wanted.
By a 4-1 vote, with Mitchell Bartley opposed, city commissioners voted to back the hiring of a city manager by Aug. 1, ahead of the start of the next fiscal year.
After much discussion by the commissioners, it was agreed the individual would be on probation for their first year, and be required to attract additional monies to city coffers at or above the cost of their own compensation package, or risk termination.
Johnson argued forcefully for the new hire, noting at the outset that he has advocated for the post, which is mentioned in the city charter, for more than a decade, back to 2007.
He stressed that no jobs would be lost in conjunction with the new hire, akin to a chief executive officer who oversees all the city operations.
“You would have professional oversight, that you do not have now,” Johnson said. “We don’t have a plan. I just want a professional in to lay down a plan and bring us a vision for the future.”
Noting that the National League of Cities estimates an average base play nationwide for a city manager to be about $106,000, he suggested a base for the new hire be in the $65,000 to $85,000 range, with additional health and life insurance, sick leave and retirement benefits.
He estimated this would cost the city between $95,000 and $115,000, with about $17,000 needed to be taken out of the current fiscal year budget, which ends Sept. 30, to fund the manager for this year. That, he said, could be taken from the unused salary of former staffer Cindy Summerhill, who retired a few months ago and was not replaced.
Summerhill’s projected salary and benefits in 2018-19, totaling $55,700, would go towards the new city manager post, with another $15,000 coming from the Community Redevelopment Agency budget, an expenditure strongly supported by Apalachicola businessman Tom Morgan, a CRA board member, at a CRA meeting held prior to the city commission’s regular May meeting.
Johnson proposed to take another $20,000 from the city’s contingency funds, and said $15,000 would come from the sale of the former fire station on Water Street.
Another $5,000 from monies, budgeted but unbilled, for consultant Bill McCartney would go towards funding, along with what the mayor said would be “a minimum projected increase of sales tax revenue” of $10,000.
He did not specify a dollar figure, but said the new person would help minimize the role and cost of City Attorney Pat Floyd. “Currently we are paying the city attorney to handle problems that could easily be handled by a city manager,” Johnson said.
“If a city manager is worth their salt, and they can’t find the money to continue, then they don’t deserve the job,” Johnson said. “A lot of issues will be taken care of. It works in other communities, I don’t see why it wouldn’t work here.”
Questioned by Commissioner Brenda Ash as to what would happen if additional revenue did not come in as forecast, the mayor voiced an adamant tone.
“Then we’ll go back to the old condition of being broke, going from one crisis to the next,” he said. “I have high hopes that a city manager come in with expertise and find the money.
“If the money’s not there beyond that, then the position does not continue,” Johnson said. “It is very likely that revenues will increase, or expenses will be saved, that will more than pay for the added cost. In fact, in most cases, a good city manager will save the city money, not cost the city money.”
The mayor said hiring a professional city manager would give commissioners better control over the administration of policies, would make accountability more centralized, and would enable all commissioners to be equally involved.
He said a city manager will provide a central contact point for citizens to resolve complaints, and for a more effective use of state and federal grants in providing and paying for city services.
“A city manager will work diligently to promote responsible government spending, and identify ways to provide better, more efficient and more cost-effective city services,” Johnson said.
“The issues we’re hearing tonight is a direct result because we don’t have an effective city manager in place,” he said.
“Why do we need a city planner to increase spending? Carrabelle tried it and it didn’t work,” asked Bartley.
“Until you put forth the effort to change the current climate it’s going to continue,” the mayor argued, citing the current budget pressures affecting the city. “You’re going to have to do your job (or) the day’s going to come when city employees can’t cash their paycheck.”
In her motion Ash specified the one-year probationary period “unless funds can be sustained.” The mayor as well as Commissioner Jimmy Elliott both reiterated that no employees would be displaced.
“Everybody would keep their jobs,” said Elliott, noting the one other Florida city, Key West, deemed by the state to be an area of state concern, has a city manager. “Somehow they get $5 million.
“Hopefully, (a city manager) will perform so well, they’ll bring money into the city, and it will be good for the city and good for workers,” he said. “It’s a gamble you have to take.”
The mayor challenged his colleagues to come up with an alternative if they weren’t on board with the new post. “If you have a better solution, put it on the table,” said Johnson, offering to place Commissioner Anita Grove, who had voiced concerns about cutting back the newly-created lobbyist position, on a screening committee for the new hire.
Four Apalachicola residents, Elinor Mount-Simmons, Despina George, Jan Thomas and Valentine Webb, spoke out during the meeting.
Mount-Simmons probed how it was that others already tasked to seek grants, including lobbyist Patrick Bell and CRA Director Augusta West, would not be affected by the new hire.
George was explicitly opposed, calling it fiscally irresponsible to move forward without considering the entire budget picture.
“There’s never any reporting on how we fare (with financial decisions),” she said. “It’s not a gamble, it’s ridiculous. This was put together by a committee and you’re trying shove this down the commission’s throat.”
Thomas supported the move. “I’m so proud to be here right now,” she said. “I understand the fear, the worry, of the change.”
Webb cautioned that “You’re setting yourself up for failure if it’s for one year. This person will need at least two years.”
Ash replied that “without having the pro-forma, how can you go that length of time if you don’t know where those revenues are coming from? And we don’t have that.”
Vroegops turn down revised lease
Following up on a narrow vote last month, City Attorney Pat Floyd presented a modified lease for the Harbormaster House at Scipio Creek, and the commissioners approved it unanimously.
But soon after, Mike and Robin Vroegop, partners in Florida Geotourism Associates (FGA), the ecotourism company that first secured permission last fall, said no to the offer.
Floyd said he had reviewed his proposed lease with City Administrator Lee Mathes, and made changes as suggested by the city commission as well as by John Albers, a mediator brought in on the Vroegops’ behalf earlier this year.
“We added a definition of community space, that would be monitored by the city,” he said. “They would have the right to approve the meetings in communtiy space to make sure it continues to be in the interest of the city, and not violate the purpose of the Scipio Creek basin.”
The proposed lease would include a provision allowing the Vroegops to sublet a portion of the building, subject to city approval.
The Vroegops had asked that the gross rent for the entire space remain at $1,000 per month, with a 4 percent increase put in place for the last half of the 10-year lease. Any monies from subleasing that go beyond that would go entirely to the city, the Vroegops proposed.
Floyd said his lease said that if the city approves a sublease, “a certain percentage would be paid to city, with the rest to FGA. This could be an inducement on the part of the city, to be able to increase the rent a little bit.”
In defense of his default provisions, Floyd said he did not see the basis for many of the Vroegop’s objections.
“If it (the lease) is not broken, there’s no need to fix it. Items that were never objected to (are now being challenged). If it’s not requested to be changed, you don’t change it,” he said. “Why are you worrying about the default provision anyway? We don’t know what will happen in 10 years.”
He said the Vroegops had already secured several favorable terms through the talks. “The bottom line is we’re down to the point where there’s not much to really talk about any more but those things that aren’t applicable.
“There is a difference between a good lease, and the best lease for the city,” he said. “This is the best lease that protects the city, not an ‘all right’ or a ‘good’ one.”
Robin Vroegop told commissioners they would not sign the proposed lease, which they would have 10 days to do. “It’s my opinion, it’s not a fair lease and we will not sign it,” she said.
The commission agreed to give them a month to vacate the building, which they have occupied since late last fall and made several improvements to the structure.
“I’m very, very proud of what we’ve done in that building,” Robin Vroegop said. “We’ve had people come over and get excited.”
Elliott pressed the Vroegops as to their objections to the revised lease. They did not address specifics that they continued to want changed, but mentioned subleasing.
“We never intended to make money off the lease,” said Vroegop. “Anything over $1,000 is all yours, we’re not there to make money on the lease. We’re not here to make money on community space.”
Johnson offered the couple an option where the city would agree to Alber’s proposed lease in its entirety, but only for two years, and with a 60-day out. The Vroegops said no.
“I would have to go through this process again, sir, and respectably I wouldn’t,” said Robin Vroegop. “We have already put $12,000 into it. This building needs $25,000 worth of air-conditioning. If you can give it to me for $1 a year, I will sign that lease, and I’ll put air conditioning in it.
“We do what we say and we say what we do and we carry it out,” she said. “I’m not going to change my mind.”