If a retreat signifies defeat, a hasty backing away from confrontation, then Saturday’s day-long gathering of Apalachicola officials ought to be renamed.
Gathering at Battery Park from morning until late afternoon, members of the city commission and administrators over city departments hashed out details of city governance in front of a small contingent of interested citizens who listened intently but did not participate.
Organized by City Manager Ron Nalley, the retreat, the first such gathering in anyone’s memory, moved along based on an organizing principle Nalley first introduced at last year’s budget workshops – the use of a well-stocked notebook full of facts and figures that enabled participants to follow closely the discussion at hand.
With City Planner Cindy Clark, handling the overhead projection, each department head and every city administrator presented a report on what they oversee, to four of the five city commissioners. The only absentee was Jimmy Elliott, who was on a trip with his wife to the West Coast to see a new grandchild for the first time.
Woven through each of the presentations was Nalley’s insistence on fitting requests into a long-term capital improvement plan, assembled to begin with on a five-year time frame.
“It’s a flexible financial planning tool,” he said. “It lays out a five-year plan for replacing or upgrading the largest capital expenditures, buildings, equipment, vehicles. It’s an important planning tool for a city, especially one our size, to be able to plan for our needs.”
Nalley termed the preliminary budget talks (formal proceedings for 2019-20 begin in about three months), as part of a “continuation budget” that extends the immediate, and in some instances drastic changes made last year.
“We’re in the process of putting our house in order,” he said. “There are still savings that can be realized and revenues that need to be enhanced.
“We’re going to be seeing a lot more financial policy, financial management policies, to strengthen internal controls. That was the purpose of departments coming in front of the (city commission) and addressing their upcoming needs for the next fiscal year,” Nalley said.
He said he’d like to see the purchase of police cruisers put on a regular cycle, of every year or two.
In his report, Chief Bobby Varnes said work on the shooting range west of town is proceeding, and that it will be primarily for officer training, with Officer Chase Richards already having received training in how to train the six sworn officers that comprise the department. Discussion followed regarding how the public would be accommodated, perhaps with a limited number of paid memberships.
In the talk regarding public works and water and sewer, Nalley said the city needs to plan for replacement of a backhoe and/or tractor. “There’s a bucket truck sitting in the middle of town not operating,” he said. “It’s worn out.”
Nalley favored a possible relocation of all city departments, except the library, to the Van Johnson Complex at the former Apalachicola High School. He said the building could require some work, depending how much of it was used, which could involve only a quarter of the space, or more depending on what was relocated there.
“We knew there are some needs here and what we need to do is a space-needs analysis, to make sure the space is right for us, and a review of the entire building, to see what costs we’re talking about, and to make sure it meets our needs,” he said. “There are a lot of operations we could consider. Does it make sense to move public works here and move the police department here and consolidate administrative services and clerk services and those kind of things?”
With about $4 million in loans for various water and sewer projects still outstanding, sale of the now vacant City Hall at Water Street and Avenue E, as well as the adjacent lot and former fire station property could yield a nice chunk of money.
“We feel that that combination could pay for the loan default,” Nalley said. “That said, we need additional information.”
As it stands now, the main loan for wastewater improvements remains in default, with $755,000 needed to bring it out of arrears. An appropriations bill in the Florida legislature that would fund that amount appears stalled, but Nalley isn’t giving up hope.
“Nothing is ever dead until they adopt that budget,” he said. “We are still working actively on our appropriation bills.”
Nalley said that sale of other city-owned property has been put on hold, in part due to a proposed Triumph grant that could put workforce housing on some of these sites, and in part due to a brief drop in housing prices after Hurricane Michael.
“We wouldn’t want to fire sell our property and get almost nothing,” he said. “It doesn’t benefit us.”
Nalley said city commissioners have to now decide how to spend about $400,000 in insurance money for property damage from Hurricane Michael. About half of that stemmed from coverage of the former Popham Building on Water Street, with the rest possibly to shore up the docks at the Mill Pond, which continue to lack adequate water for the boat slips.
“It’s in rough shape, there is a lot that needs to be done,” he said. “With the water and the sewer piers, we’re looking at close to $130,000 worth of immediate needs. The city has to decide where best to spend to spend $200,000.
“It doesn’t look like in my review that we have raised enough money to cover our costs down at both marinas,” Nalley said. “This is an issue that needs to be looked at.”
He said talks with the Triumph board, which has given tentative approval for a grant of about $1.1 million to rejuvenate the city’s port – with about half going to the Popham site and half to the Mill Pond – could lead to a splitting of the grant and moving forward with half of it.
Nalley said there continues to be disagreement on the costs of restoring the turn-of-the-century Popham building, which had fallen into ruin and was hard hit by the hurricane. He said several people with knowledge of the site have come forward to say that the architects who have said it could be done sufficiently may be underestimating the eventual cost.
Also emerging from the retreat was a consensus from city officials that attention should be paid to increasing boat launch fees at Battery Park, as well as updating the list of business license fees and eliminating outdated ones and bringing them to current needs.
“That’s something we’ll do this fiscal year,” Nalley said. “We need to look at the business license schedule. There are things that we don’t do any more.”
He said the city could consider going out for a request for proposals to operate the city’s two marinas. He also floated the idea of designating a public information officer to better address social media and other public relations concerns.
“I don’t see us hiring additional personnel to do that job,” Nalley said.
At the outset of the meeting, Lee Mathes, the city’s director of administrative services, announced that she would be retiring as of Friday, April 12.
Nalley said he plans to recommend to city commissioners that Mathes’ replacement be someone with background in handling the books.
“My plan is to hire someone that has specific experience in municipal finance,” he said. “What I want is someone with a strong finance background.”