As citizens of St Augustine, in exchange for those public services which we have requested, through our elected and appointed representatives; we agree to pay our share of the cost through the levy of taxes. Included in those costs are the cost of administration of our municipal government.
If the City spends it, the taxpayers are liable for it and there is very little you can do — other than pay or forfeit your property. You cannot “opt out” of government spending or the resulting taxes required to pay for it; no matter how bloated, misguided, or unnecessary the spending has been.
Therefore, the people who serve as our mayor, commissioners, and their appointed administrators, are guardians of a sacred trust. They are charged, among other things, with the conservation of our collective resources and to enter into proper business agreements with individuals and organizations who propose to consume those resources to their own benefit, use, and enjoyment.
In our recent past, over the last 10 years or so, the City of St Augustine has drifted away from the formality of such agreements for some, while making it unnecessarily burdensome for others; creating the appearance of favoritism, patronage, and cronyism.
Our community needs to enjoy a sense of “value” for the taxes we pay, a sense of trust in our elected officials that comes from believing that city employees are energized to perform their jobs in both an effective and an efficient way.
Of paramount importance is a feeling of openness and inclusiveness for all of our residents — not just the privileged, moneyed, or the elite. A sense of “accountability to the public” is long overdue from our public servants; as is absolute transparency in business and financial dealings between the City and others.
A recent and glaring example is the brick patio on the southeast grounds of the Visitor Information Center. This property, an asset owned and maintained by all city residents, has been converted to use by a private organization; who, without oversight, accountability, or even a written agreement, purports to “sell” pieces of our historic landscape — presumably forever.
There are several points to be made here. First, you can’t sell what you don’t own, and it is wrong of the City to allow the practice of advertising brick pavers for sale by a third-party.
Without a written agreement to memorialize the understandings, terms and conditions under which business will be conducted with the public, all the taxpayers share a contingent liability for any loss or injury claimed; since it is the City who owns the property.
What makes this example particularly disturbing is the fact that a form of agreement for a vendor to use the Visitor Information Center already exists as a template. The legal work has already been done and in-house legal staff can easily drop in the appropriate names and addresses if the commission decides to allow the type of activity that is occurring today.
- The use of the property should be specifically lined out and should not allow the organization to occupy or use the property for any purpose other than those purposes expressly permitted by the agreement.
- There should be a requirement for the organization, at its sole expense, to keep all improvements in good order and repair. Currently that is carried out by the City without compensation.
- Particularly in the case at hand, the City should consider language in existing licenses where the organization agrees that they shall not directly or indirectly “assign, sublease, hypothecate, sell, mortgage, encumber or otherwise transfer this License or any interest therein” without the written permission of the City.
- Who pays the cost to defend the taxpayers in the event of lawsuits, claims or causes of action brought against the City of St. Augustine, and who pays any judgment which may be rendered against the City in connection with the use of the property?
- Perhaps one of the greatest risks to the taxpayers is the lack of an indemnification from the organization to hold the City harmless for any and all claims for damages, costs and expense to any person or property, whether real or personal, due to any act or omission of the organization, or any representative, agent, customer or employee of the organization, arising out of the use of the City’s property.
- Is the organization even financially stable enough to make such an indemnification? In other licensed uses, where approved, the organization was required to name the City as an additional insured on a public liability insurance policy with $300,000 bodily injury or death for each person or up to $1,000,000 bodily injury or death for each accident. Would $500,000 property damage insurance cover the loss in any one accident?
- And, finally, the City cannot be in the business of favoring one private non-profit organization over another private non-profit organization. Why should Colonial St Augustine Foundation, Inc., have free use of a city asset to raise money? What if a different charitable organization expressed interest in also “selling” bricks at the patio? Could they?