Guest Column: The REAL cost to taxpayers

The Commissioners Albatross

Bruce A. Maguire
St. Augustine, FL

In an earlier column, I reviewed the issue of “Why” are we even considering to undertake this massive project. Today, I will review the issues of the “cost” of the project and who is going to be ultimately responsible for project completion and future maintenance.

Financially, this could be the critical project which explodes in the face of the taxpayer, who would then have to pick up the burden of increasing taxes to finish, operate and maintain the program.

The Commissioners need to understand that.

Based on numerous presentations by Jeremy and the Halback Design Group to both the citizens and the Commissioners, the cost to construct this project is estimated to exceed $10 million. That’s a nice chunk of money. More specifically, that is a hefty liability for the City Commissioners to create (on the taxpayers) without a detailed and critical understanding of the responsibilities of the Federal Transit Administration (keeper of the grant) and the grant program.

In one presentation, I distinctly heard the City staffer state that if the City gets the grant we have to accept it. Yet, in another meeting, I distinctly heard the same staff member state we did not have to accept it. Unfortunately, I did not hear any of the Commissioners question the reality of the commitment.

At another presentation and in personal discussions with the Halback personnel, I was told that the grant would not be a single award of $10 million. They have projected a series of grants in which the City would be limited to $3 million per grant cycle (one per year) and a maximum of $9 million. I’m not sure the Commissioners have researched the grant program.

I checked the 2010 awards and reviewed the Program Manual for 2007. In 2010, only 7 projects were awarded more than $1 million, with the largest award at $3 million. They were all National Parks or Forests. Forty recipients split another $13 million for an average grant of $325,000. In this picture, where do we stand?

That begs a lot of questions. What if we only get grant approval for the first year or the first two years? What if the grant approval is less than the $3 million for any given year? For each grant application, do we have to apply as just another applicant, or do we get extra credit since we received a grant the year prior? Even worse, do we get penalized because we already received one or two grants for the same project?

If we do not receive the full $9 million, do we cut the project proportionately or will the Commissioners put the balance of the cost on the back of the taxpayers? Also, don’t forget the projected cost is $10 million. Who will pay for the other $1 million above the grant limit? Who will pay for cost overruns?

Finally, it has been repeatedly stated that the grant is not dependent on participation from the community. For example, most federal grants require the applicant to contribute somewhere between 10%-50% of the cost of the total project. Why then are the Commissioners willing to spend $2 million as a show of good faith to the FTA. They say it would enhance our chances. If our project is not strong enough to stand on its own merits, then it is not deserving of a donation from our taxpayers. That $2 million could be spent on numerous other “needy” projects, such as the Galimore Center, which has been crying for financial support for nearly ten years.

In its initial mission statement, the Reconnecting the Castillo to the Bayfront project was offered to make improvements to the bayfront and A1A in time for the City’s 450th Commemoration in 2013-2015. However, this grant funding has the potential to provide capital funding for improvements to the bayfront and A1A, leaving improved connections between downtown and the Castillo – bayfront for the community’s benefit long after the celebration.

Bruce Maguire is a life-long resident of St. Augustine and Green Cove Springs. He graduated from the University of Florida where he was awarded a Bachelor’s Degree and Master’s Degree in Business, with a specialty in Real Estate, investments and planning. Following 21 years in the Air Force as a fighter pilot, Mr. Maguire retired at the rank of Lt. Col. and returned to St. Johns County. He served four years as a County Commissioner, presiding as Chairman for one year. During the four years, he represented St. Johns County on the North Florida Regional Planning Council and the Metropolitan Planning Organization. He was appointed by the Governor to serve on the 2010-2020 Florida Transportation Plan development board. He currently owns and operates several businesses within the community.