By Carl Wagenfohr
CLEARWATER – Having failed twice to convince voters to approve plans to improve the city's downtown, the City of Clearwater limited its 2007 referendum to the question of building a bayfront marina at Coachman Park. The city also made certain promises to the voters about the facility's public access, appearance, and, most importantly, its finances.
"The users of the facility will bear the costs," claimed a city-produced Downtown Boat Slips Fact Sheet. "A 20-year bond, paid back with revenues from slip rentals will pay the majority of the cost," that piece claimed, with contributions from the Downtown Development Board, Community Redevelopment Agency and a $1.2-million state/federal grant.
Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard claimed in his March 8, 2007, Gazette editorial, "This project unlike many that add to our quality of life will not only be self-supportive it will help support other necessary activities in the city. We anticipate that over the first 40 years of the project $9.6 million will be added to the general fund. What is the general fund? The general fund is what supports our police, fire, library and parks and recreation. In short we have a project that enhances our downtown while supplementing important activities in existing departments. "
Two years later, a worldwide economic crisis has hit the marine industry particularly hard. The marina's initial $15.50/foot per month slip rental rate, which the city's 2007 Fact Sheet called "a competitive market rate", has proven to be anything but. Robert Semmes, VP of Applied Technology and Management, the consultant that forecast the $15.50 rate, said earlier this week, "Right now, however, everything is off and especially recreational non-necessities like boats and RVs. "
The weak demand, evidenced by only ten boaters willing to put down a $500 deposit for a slip, has caused the Clearwater City Council to rethink the marina's business plan and lower rates in the hope of filling the facility's 126 slips. But those lower rates, $9 per foot for residents and $10.50 for non-residents, have a big impact on the marina's profitability; the lower revenues would not be able to support debt repayment and operating costs, making the taxpayer liable for any shortfall.
Councilmember Paul Gibson, who as a candidate in 2007 opposed the marina referendum, recognized that the city's taxpayer-supported General Fund could not cover the marina's projected loss, and proposed that the facility's debt should be reduced or eliminated by taking funds from Penny for Pinellas, the county-wide 1-percent infrastructure sales tax.
Gibson's colleagues agreed. At their February 19th meeting, the City Council voted to take $8.25-million from the city's insurance reserves to buy-down the marina's debt in its entirety. The Council will discuss replacing those insurance reserves with Penny for Pinellas funds on March 12.
But whether its insurance reserves, sourced largely from the city's General Fund, or Penny for Pinellas, funded largely from taxpayer retail purchases, the capital dollars that will be used to construct the downtown marina originated from, and belong to, the taxpayer.
The city's written and oral promises that no taxpayer funds will be used to support the marina have been broken, and we will never know what the outcome of the 2007 referendum would have been had those promises not been made.
The City of Clearwater is trying to make the best of a very bad situation. But it should be contrite to its taxpayers and apologize for its broken promise with the same vigor that it originally used in making that promise.
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