Editorial: City budget decisions are familiar

They talked so much yesterday that the city staffers and commissioners gave out of steam and called a break in the budget workshop until 10:00 this morning; when we will hear more plans from City Manager John Regan and Director of Finance Mark Litzinger about how to reduce the cost of government in St. Augustine.

I would like to thank them for the creativity shown in this effort. I know it is not an easy task for anyone and I appreciate the entire staff’s effort to accomplish it in their usual, professional manner. Our City really does have some talented people in its employ.

Now a word of caution — this is not necessarily a “bad thing” — it is merely a word of caution because, whatever the outcome, we are likely to be saddled with the decision for some time to come. This is also likely to be one of those moments in St. Augustine’s history where we create another millionaire — or make a millionaire a bigger one.

My morning coffee buddy, Dan Holiday, has been bitching about how much money, per resident, the city loses every year because of what he sees as a mismanaged Colonial Spanish Quarter. Forgive me if I still call it “the restoration area” since I got used to that name over the last thirty years, or so.

Holiday’s been complaining about it several years, at least. He went down to the finance department, got copies of the operating budget, did all the calculations and has been a “bee in my bonnet” about it ever since. He said that he could never get anyone at City Hall to listen to any suggestion that included “dumping” the subsidy for the restored Spanish Quarter — maybe because at that time, the City was managing those properties for the State; and, no one ever thought about the University of Florida winding up in the driver’s seat.

So after the three-hour yawn fest, what does Record reporter Peter Guinta open with this morning? “St. Augustine’s City Manager John Regan said Wednesday that the Colonial Spanish Quarter needs to be reinvented, re-energized and brought to profitability next year.”

The rumble of the jungle drums that was unnoticeable until about January of 2010; around the time that our newest attraction operator, Pirate Museum owner Pat Croce, moved his museum to town from Key West.

“We can’t keep losing money at the rate we are,” Regan told the City Commission at a budget workshop in City Hall yesterday. “We need a brand-new plan.”

Everybody at the coffee table hates it when Dan’s right, except me. I always root for the underdog.

So, now the millionaire history lesson. Remember Henry L. “Slim” McDaniel? I do, he used to live across the street from me when I was on North St. Augustine Boulevard. While everybody else on the block had manicured lawns with thick, St. Augustine grass, Slim covered the lawn with a rock garden and thorny succulents including more than 35 kinds of cacti — accentuating his love for the southwest native culture and his willingness to thumb his nose to anyone who did not like it.

In the 1940’s, Slim owned a tire dealership on San Marco Avenue near the city gates.

In 1953, St. Johns County constructed a new jail, north of town on Lewis Speedway.

The old jail, constructed about 1891 with a $10,000 grant from Henry Flagler, had outgrown its usefulness to local government. The county fathers, not wanting to absorb further operating expenses, advertised a request for bids — to see who would demolish the jail for the lowest cost.

McDaniel had the vision to say, rather than you having to pay me to demolish it; I will buy the building and the land from you. The “Authentic Old Jail”, purchased as county surplus for pennies on the dollar, was the driving vehicle for McDaniel’s wealth — his other vehicle was a white Eldorado Cadillac with a pair of longhorns mounted to the hood.

In recent news releases from the Department of Public Affairs, there have been rumbles that the situation with the Colonial Spanish Quarter has worsened to the point that the Commission may have to vote to close down the operation. All of that on the heels of “good news” that a new agreement allows the City and National Park Service to cross-sell each other’s tickets between the across-the-street attractions.

Oddly, the collection of state-owned buildings only employs 20 people. For 2012, City budget figures predict a loss of $549,542 from the Spanish Quarter — they attribute the loss to “personnel costs”. With budget woes everywhere — cut, cut, cut. I can see the writing on the wall — who will rescue us from this white elephant?

Despite the doom and gloom, Regan announced that three private companies — two from St. Augustine — have already expressed interest in forging a possible partnership with the City and UF to manage the Colonial Spanish Quarter museum.

One of those interested is said to be adjoining property owner Pat Croce and his company Grand Marana, LLC; whose registered agent is Mayor Joe Boles. Maybe we can call the new attraction the “Spanish Colonial Pirate and Treasure Museum”?

Too bad Slim is dead and too bad Croce lives in Pennsylvania. A pirate cruising through downtown with a pair of longhorns on the hood would be cool.

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