The budget season began for Port St. Joe city commissioners on Tuesday and there was a bonus on the ledger.
Commissioners opened the process for crafting next fiscal year’s budget during a workshop and among the items on the revenue side was over half a million dollars from BP.
Several meetings ago, commissioners approved attorneys to reach a final number and the oil giant’s final compensation to the city for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill totaled $675,000 to settle all outstanding city claims.
After attorney’s fees and other costs, the city netted $539,000, which city manager Jim Anderson said sits in a segregated account.
And commissioners and staff came armed with a wish list of projects that are currently beyond the general fund budget but will serve as suggestions for spending the money.
That wish list includes improvements to the Centennial Building, the 10th Street ball fields, the demolition and development of the old Gulf Pines Hospital site and, maybe most importantly, funding refinance charges on a loan with Regions Bank.
Commissioners are examining ways to refinance that loan, which has a balloon payment in 2015, in order to maintain the lowest interest rate possible on long-term debt that city manager Jim Anderson noted is approaching $20 million.
Looming on the horizon, commissioners are waiting on the bidding for relocation of the Cape San Blas Lighthouse into the city.
Clay Smallwood with Preble Rish Engineers mapped out the timeline for commissioners, as soil borings and testing of the new site have been completed.
The city also discussed and will take over administration of a grant secured by the Port St. Joe Redevelopment Agency (PSJRA) that will underwrite the foundation construction for the lighthouse once moved.
The city will advertise for bids for the project – moving the lighthouse, keepers’ quarters and oil house from their current location on Air Force land on Cape San Blas to a site adjacent to George Core Park – beginning Aug. 1 and continue through Aug. 8.
A pre-bid conference will be held Aug. 15 with the awarding of the final day for accepting bids Aug. 29.
The hope, Smallwood said, is to have a recommendation for award at the Sept. 1 commission meeting.
“We want to get it done as soon as we can,” said Mayor Mel Magidson.
The city continues to wait on an actual deed for the structures from the federal government.
The bids, Smallwood said, will provide the template for how the structures will be moved – various scenarios have been offered informally, from moving overland to using a barge or even helicopter.
The bids will also offer a window into a definitive price for the project which has been the subject of much public debate.
The city has a $325,000 historic preservation grant from the city and some $40,000 raised by the St. Joseph Historical Society.
The PSJRA has also placed in its budget some funding for the lighthouse project, though the PSJRA board has yet to formally convey any of the funds to the city.
The city submitted a request for over $900,000 for the relocation to the county RESTORE Act committee, but the mayor has said during past meetings that he has received informal estimates between $200,000-$250,000.
Tentative millage rate
For the sixth consecutive year commissioners adopted a “planning” tentative millage with full intent of coming down as close to the current millage as possible.
By law, taxing authorities have 30 days, or by Aug. 1, to provide the Property Appraiser and Florida Department of Revenue a proposed millage rate.
That is the rate showing up on Truth in Millage (TRIM) notices going out to property owners.
However, while crafting the budget, the taxing authority may still move down on its millage; but it is locked in from going any higher.
The city adopted an increase of one mill – a mill equals $1 for every $1,000 in assessed taxable property value – but commissioners emphasized they had little intention of levying that mill.
“We know we are going to come down,” Magidson said. “We’ve consciously left taxes and millage the same in recent years because water rates were going up. We didn’t want to hit people twice.”
Water and sewer rates are set to rise again in the fall for the third-straight year.
The city’s current millage of 3.5914 is the lowest in the county. The city also realized the only increase in value to its mill this year, with an increase of $10,021 to the general fund.
Commissioners, again expressing frustration with the slow pace of information on a water study from water plant designer CDM Smith, entertained several recommendations for addressing water issues short and long term.
Plant manager Larry McLamma said the city is coming up on some of its most important annual water testing for the state and the lack of uni-directional maintenance flushing since early in the year is an issue.
The flushing was ceased for the CDM water study, but with the study well behind schedule – an initial report expected months ago remains at least a week away, Smallwood said – McLamma emphasized the need to resume flushing, particularly as water complaints have increased recently.
Smallwood said he would talk to David Kozan of CDM Smith about the flushing and indicated he did not see a major problem with resuming the flushing.
Commissioner Rex Buzzett said he had been in conversations with staff at the Northwest Florida Water Management District about the viability of securing a grant to run new pipe the 17-mile length of the freshwater canal to bring water directly from the Chipola River Pump Station to the water plant.
The clarity of the water in the canal has been seen as an issue since the plant opened. Mowing along the canal is a constant need and tree sap and other contaminants fall into the water on the way to the plant.
By piping the water, Buzzett suggested, and making improvements to the pump station the city could, once it solves the discoloration issue, be in position to be the regional water supplier the NWFWMD hopes the city to be.
Buzzett noted that the water management district has funds in reserve it has been instructed by state legislators to expend on water projects throughout the region.
Finally, Smallwood said the USDA had moved paperwork ahead on the sidewalk project for MLK Blvd., approval of which has held up the water and sewer line replacement for streets in the neighborhood of North Port St. Joe.