Historic City News followed this morning’s joint meeting of the St Augustine City Commission and members of the St Johns County Commission, and their staffs; there were only three items on the agenda, but, if it was not clear to everyone at the beginning of the meeting, it was certainly clear by the close of the first item that today’s meeting was the “John Regan Show”.
In a presentation offered by the City Manager, Regan, who held the podium from shortly after 9:00 a.m. Wednesday, June 25th, throughout the midday lunch break, delivered what some will find to be good news, others will not like, and he fielded questions from the decision makers who are charged with setting a policy by which residents of West Augustine can receive in-ground sewer and water service at their homes.
Let’s tell the truth, Okay? The great sewer debate to provide gravity sewer to West Augustine residents, is largely a red herring that has been made into a political football. It is back in the limelight — NOT because the residents are demanding service; the 20 or so who don’t currently purchase city water, and the 100 or so in the service area who don’t currently purchase city sewer, are largely doing so by their own choice.
It is understandably difficult to convince a homeowner who does not pay a monthly water and sewer bill, to give up that financial comfort when they feel adequately served by their own well and sanitary septic tank. There is about a $3,600 tap fee to connect to city sewer and an additional tap fee for city water. The city will finance the tap fees over ten-years, or until the property is sold, whichever comes first.
The new attention to the old issue, which has been around for decades, is because it is election time. Just look at who is the loudest proponents of service; Ron Sanchez, a county commissioner who doesn’t think the county should pay to develop the service, and, Ken Bryan; a one-term county commissioner who had four years to do something to ameliorate the condition — but instead, accomplished nothing. Now Sanchez wants to be elected to another 4-year term in the highest paying job he has ever had in his life, and, since Ken Bryan was voted out of office, he just wants to be returned to his life as a political insider, feeding at the government trough and riding roughshod over every safeguard that has been put in place to accomplish financial responsibility, transparency, and accountability.
The City of St Augustine came in when there was no county water or sewer available; and, in order to justify the millions of dollars that would be poured into ground to build the system, the City was granted a utility service area congruent to, but beyond the political boundaries of, the city limits. Think of that investment as an annuity for West Augustine residents that the city has waited to redeem for over fifteen-years.
Keep in mind that the city did not HAVE to build outside the city limits, the city commissioners made the investment to satisfy a basic social need of its neighbors to the west — neighbors that to this day might still be without water, sewer and wastewater treatment had they been forced to wait for the county utilities to be built. The City of St Augustine provides water and sewer to a number of large users that are outside the city limits; Grumman Aerospace, Flagler Hospital, and even the County Administration Palace where today’s meeting was held.
Commissioner Stevenson and Bennett’s remarks inferring that the city was somehow taking advantage of an opportunity to exploit an economically blighted area of the county in order to capture the 25% service charge to customers outside the city limits is completely unfounded. I’ll even go so far as to say it was insulting to the city manager. None of the city or county commissioners, or the staffers present, lives in West Augustine — therefore their emotional, self-righteous indignation is noted, but adds nothing to the sum of human knowledge, let alone the instant case.
Regan says the City is weary of investing in studies, consultants, and pro-forma estimates just to hit the brick wall at the county commission, resulting in nothing more than a good case of analysis-paralysis. Thankfully, there was general agreement on that point.
The City offered a solution to the finger pointing that will turn over control of the West Augustine utilities service area to St Johns County Utilities. According to the best estimates obtained from their consultant, based on documented assets and documented revenues in place, the portion of City of St Augustine Utilities in the expanded St Johns County area, is valued at about $5 million.
Regan thinks the county would be foolish to buy it. “What about the cost you will incur just to change over the backflow to accommodate your system?” Regan asked, as he listed several other costs that will be required just to satisfy bondholders, the city’s credit rating, the proper transfer of title and claims to make the transaction happen — all before the first customer receives any sewer or water service. Regan estimates that the administrative and acquisition costs to the county will be at least $12 million to $16 million at the end of the day, maybe more. “If we agree that you are doing this for an emotional reason and not a financial reason, wouldn’t residents be better off if you took the same money and built the infrastructure yourselves to provide service where no service exists?”
Another question that we at Historic City News would like answered is this, the city has proven for more than 10-years its ability to continue to build out the system, provide the services and maintenance, and engineer improvements and expansions when warranted. If the city sells the utility service area and its assets to the county, there has been no guarantee that the county is prepared to deliver those services at lower rates, without service charges, in the outlier examples that are being used in the argument, or to do so in any particular time frame. Is anyone under the impression that shovels and backhoes are standing by along West King Street, ready to reach out to Christopher Street and the other unserved areas?
And, while the city is waiting to see if the county is finally going to make a counter offer to the $5 million price tag to acquire the West Augustine utility expansion area, we have possibly a much more important question to ask.
Today, Ken Bryan, who is running for Mayor of the City of St Augustine, admitted that he has invested in West Augustine property that could benefit from this decision. We’ve heard that before as he attempted to paint himself as part of the West Augustine community.
If that is true, he has misstated his assets and net worth on the financial statement he placed on file with the Supervisor of Elections. He reports that he owns his home in Pelican Reef which is in District 5 on Anastasia Island at Madeira Heights, and is technically in the city by annexation, and another piece of property on Florida Club Drive; which he previously used as his home address in order to qualify for his first unsuccessful run for county commission, as a Democrat in District 2.