Port St. Joe commissioners wavered Tuesday night on whether to grant a waiver of $74,000 in utility impact fees for Eastern Shipbuilding as the company proposes to expand its operation onto the old paper mill site.
Though two commissioners, Rex Buzzett and Bo Patterson, sounded ready to approve the request, no formal motion was brought and commissioners decided to schedule a special meeting in the next two weeks to give Eastern Shipbuilding Group an answer.
A representative with Eastern Shipbuilding could not comment on how the delay might impact the move of Eastern to Gulf County – Eastern is scheduled to bring the first hull for outfitting early next year.
He would only say that the company was trying to expedite the processes it had to go through to come to Gulf County and this was one of those processes.
“It will have to be (okay), won’t it?” Mack Woods said when asked if putting off approval was okay from Eastern’s viewpoint.
The debate among commissioners centered on the intended use of impact fees and how the city has applied them in the past.
City attorney Tom Gibson wrote in a letter that the city had set a precedent for what Eastern was asking, which was to tap existing lines that once fed the paper mill and pay for whatever the meters read.
Gibson wrote that the city had established a precedent in a previous situation where one entity “demolished users of more water and sewer capacity than the applicant would use” and “we would waive the facility charges” or impact fees.
Gibson wrote given that the city was justified in waiving the fees.
Gibson was absent from the meeting and could not provide information on that precedent.
Commissioners Phil McCroan and Bill Kennedy recalled the city’s recent action pertaining to First Baptist Church, which paid more than $30,000 in impact fees when it built a new family hall and parking lot.
Kennedy said Oak Grove Church had done the same, built a new facility and paid impact fees.
“I want to be consistent,” Kennedy said. “We are not being consistent. I want the jobs like anybody. I want to be fair. We have to be fair and consistent.”
Kennedy said that he would like the city adopt a policy setting forth when and if such incentives might be offered for a company moving into the city. He said he would not hold up Eastern for the drafting of such a policy, but wanted to see a process put in place.
“Let’s make a policy; I want us to remain fair,” Kennedy said.
Buzzett said Kennedy was “comparing apples and oranges.”
Buzzett noted that Eastern was bringing as many as 200 jobs to the community.
“Job creation makes the difference here,” Buzzett said. “You have to look at the job creation. We need to think long and hard about it.”
Commissioner Bo Patterson said he was ready to vote and could not completely understand any underlying resistance.
“All I’ve heard since I’ve been on this board is jobs, jobs, jobs,” Patterson said. “I see no reason to put this off.”
Patterson seemed to mull a formal motion until Mayor Mel Magidson said if he desired to make sure he had the needed three votes.
City manager Jim Anderson said that the impact fees were put in place to allow the city infrastructure improvements with growth.
Had the city been collecting such fees for the past few decades it would not be staring at nearly $20 million in long-term debt, as that brought by the replacement of 20 miles of pipe in the water distribution system.
Barry Sellers, executive director of the Gulf County Chamber of Commerce/Economic Development Council, said such incentives typically are discussed and provided on the front end. He encouraged the city to set a policy, but said in this instance the situation was akin to “putting the horse behind the cart.”
“(Eastern has) been good team players,” Sellers said. “We do want to bring jobs into the city. Many places have incentives and I think we should. (Eastern) should have probably gotten all the incentives in on the front end, but we are trying to get them on the back end.
“In theory, I am not in favor of incentives; in theory. But that is the world we live in. Without them you die.”
Mayor Mel Magidson also noted that other counties and cities provide an array of incentives.
And Woods emphasized that Eastern would be tapping an existing 10-inch line on the mill site, would be using less water and sewer than the paper mill did and that Eastern contractors would be installing the meter, leaving little work for the city to actually perform.
Director of Public Works John Grantland agreed, telling commissioners the work for his department would be minimal.
“The line is there, they will pay for the meter, I think we should waive the fee to have a lot of jobs,” Buzzett said.
Magidson said his sense from the board was a preference to wait until Gibson was in town – later this week – to further explain the precedent he cited in his letter to commissioners and to take the issue up at a special meeting within the next two weeks.
“We are just trying to be fair,” Magidson said. “There is no indication this is a deal-breaker. But Eastern deserves an answer. We do not want to muck up this process.”
Kennedy added, “Nobody is going to stop Eastern Shipbuilding. We are being responsible.