What began as a business-like affair last week, again turned towards veiled verbal warfare between both members of Port St. Joe’s City Commission and the public.

 

What began as a business-like affair last week, again turned towards veiled verbal warfare between both members of Port St. Joe’s City Commission and the public.

The Port St. Joe City Commission held another budget workshop last Thursday and while the talks on upcoming water projects and the need to replace the city’s failing water meters began the day, the midday meeting was again capped with barbs traded between commission members and the public.

The majority of the heated rhetoric pertained to a proposal to raise commissioner’s salaries by 420 percent.

Commissioner Rex Buzzett introduced the idea of lowering the proposed commissioner pay raise to $750 per month, lower than the proposed increase, but still higher than the $300 that the commissioners receive currently.

One at a time citizens came to the podium to voice their opinion that the wage should be raised, just not to the level that was planned.

“We deserve a raise,” said Mayor Bo Patterson. “How much, that is questionable. I think we can work out what is the best thing for everybody.”

Both Patterson and Commissioner William Thursbay stated their case for an increase in commission pay and gave examples of their work and their belief higher pay would allow lower income citizens to run for election.

“I feel that by raising the salary, not to make it what we want, at least we give ordinary people in this town a chance to run for this commission,” Patterson said.

Resident Benny Roberts, a former long-time commissioner, said that he believed the best way to settle the issue would be a mandated referendum to allow the citizens of Port St. Joe decide the proper amount.

Resident Guerry Magidson agreed that a raise was called for, but offered a 3 percent increase for every year since the current salary was set.

That increase would amount to $550 a month.

Magidson also told the commission that he works at least 30 hours a week in his function of chairman for the Scallop Festival, Chamber of Commerce and Port Authority, all for no wage.

An underlying tone of class warfare quickly broke to the surface after simmering since budget workshops began.

“I would be glad to change your financials for mine,” Patterson said as Magidson wrapped up his comments.

At that point, the argument boiled over, with resident Greg Johnson standing and telling the commission that he was fed up with loaded language.

Johnson said that he thought some of Thursbay’s early comments were directed at him to which Thursbay partially agreed.

Johnson went on to explain that he hadn’t always been well off and took offense to a comment, from Patterson to Buzzett about being born with a “silver spoon” during an earlier workshop.

“I'm tired of hearing it up here,” Johnson said. “You’ll need to change your tone.”

The back and forth stopped when Pastor Chester Davis stepped to the podium to ask the commission and the public to consider themselves and the work that needs to be completed.

An additional budget workshop was scheduled for 3:30 p.m Sept. 5 at the city's Garrison Avenue meeting location.

At that workshop, the commission will be given multiple commission salary increases to look at.

Water projects

City Manager Jim Anderson began the meeting by going over upcoming water projects.

According to Anderson, bids will be received this week for a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) project that will replace water lines in North Port St. Joe.

While the city is set to receive $650,000 from the grant, the amount of work that will be able to be completed will not be known until the bids are received.

Another grant, from the Northwest Florida Water Management District (NWFWMD), would give the city an additional $80,000 to cover water line replacement not completed with the CDBG project

“We’re hopeful between the two that we will accomplish everything,” said Anderson. “It’s coming along nicely but we still have some work to do.”

Thursbay explained the rules regarding the CDBG funds are strict and that expanding or changing the scope of work is sometimes difficult to do.

While the city is relying on the CDBG-funded work, the follow-up work using the NWFWMD grant will be completed by the city.

Water meter replacement

The majority of the workshop was spent discussing a plan to replace the city’s water meters.

The city began the process of upgrading the city’s meters in 2005 when they went to an automatic meter reader (AMR) technology.

While that change has reduced man hours on the ground, the technology hasn’t always performed well.

Currently, of the city’s 3,500 water meters, 400 have trouble being read electronically.

According to Commissioner Brett Lowry, while at a conference recently, he and other members of the commission had the chance to speak with water meter vendors.

“There is a lot of neat technology out there,” Lowry said. “I would like us to look at some of that.”

Commissioners David Ashbrook and Buzzett also voiced their interest in newer technologies.

“If we can get something new for just a little bit more and be more user-friendly for staff and customers then I am 100 percent for that,” Buzzett said.

If city staff gets their wish, the replacement of city’s meters would happen over three years.

“The concerns that we have, that you’re well aware of, is the number of stop loss reports and error reports we have in our existing water system,” said Mike Lacour, the city’s financial officer.

While not a bid, the city did reach out to Consolidate Pipe for a rough estimate on the cost of a portion of proposed work to be done.

The company came back with a figure nearing $625,000.

In order for the city to come up with first-year figures on meter replacement, funds had to be carried over from the current fiscal year into the next.

The majority of those funds came from a money earmarked to replace filter membranes at the water plant, which were paid for out of the operating fund.

Along with existing water system improvements already budgeted and the funds pulled over from the current fiscal year, the total amount budgeted for first-year replacement in a three-year plan would be $261,770.

While noting that the need was there, Thursbay wondered if the city was in a position to spend money on the meters especially because of a proposed 2.75 percent increase in the water utility rate next year.

Noting that the city had done its best to stamp out rate increases, Lacour stated a 2015 rate study showed the need for the increase.

Lacour also stated that with the introduction of more reliable water meters into the system that a future rate study could possibly push down the city’s water rates.

“By moving forward with this plan to replace the meters, we would be ensuring that we are driving our revenues in the right direction,” Lacour said.

Lacour also noted that the replacement funds are within the framework of the budget and would not add to the city’s massive debt from the construction of the water plant.

While noting the position that the city has been in the past financially, Lacour stated that he believes that meter replacement will set the city on the right track by allowing for a replacement, inventory and a starting point for saving for future upgrades.