By Gregg Bragg, The Island Eye News Staff Writer
Isle of Palms City Council held a special Ways & Means committee meeting on May 21. The conference started promptly at 4 p.m. and was the fourth such meeting scheduled to advance and hopefully finalize planning of the City’s budget for fiscal year 2020 (July 1 – June 30). Councilmember Jimmy Ward sat center stage facing the dais and the rest of his Council colleagues, and was flanked by Interim City Administrator Desiree Fragoso and City Treasurer Debbie Schimsa Suggs. The trio’s goal: to present a budget IOPC could support in time for July’s deadline.
They opened with the good news. Income from tourism has been trending higher the last several years compared to the amounts the Finance Committee used to estimate income. Fees from building permits and licensing have also been trending higher than the numbers used to estimate income for the 2020 budget.
The fiscally conservative budget rounded income down and expenses up; an idea participants came to question later in the meeting due to the enormity of the projects currently facing IOPCC.
The staggering $6.2 million price required to rehabilitate the public safety building warranted its own presentation, for example. Although a combination of general funds and tourism monies will cover $4 million of the project, the City is faced with financing the remaining $2.2 million, creating an unwelcome addition to the City’s existing debt load.
IOPCC assigned Trident Construction the job of providing the estimate, and IOP resident and Trident Comstruction employee Chris Burrell led his company’s presentation.
Burrell said the building had a “negative design” that did not take the salt air environment into account. The HVAC system drew ocean air through the building instead of blowing fresh air out, which is the primary cause for the early demise of the 10-year-old structure. He speculated that since the public safety building was built at the height of the recession, desperate contractors bid the job for less than they needed. This may have forced them to take shortcuts, which undermined the building’s integrity. Asked about razing the structure, Burrell insisted the building had good bones and that a complete rebuild is neither necessary nor feasible.
The resulting cloud that settled over the meeting prompted the city administrator to float the idea of leveraging Trident Construction’s contingency fund, generating hope the project would come in under the budgeted amount. Many contractors resist the temptation to underbid a contract, only to have to ask for more funding after a project starts. Such contractors also include a transparent contingency fund (e.g. they didn’t realize the sub-floor was damaged until they started work on the flooring they were hired to replace) as part of that bid. The contingency amounts included by Trident Construction for work on the public safety building range as high as 30% of the bid. “If we don’t use it, we’ll give it back,” said Burrell at the conclusion of his remarks.
Given the number of large projects on the City’s plate, rounding cost estimates may not save them, however. Other projects slated for action over the next two fiscal years include; a new fire ladder truck, a new fire pumper truck, completing phase III of the city’s drainage outfalls, and repairing/ replacing/augmenting the docks at the marina. The combined additional debt associated with the projects listed is over $11 million, and the conversation turned to remedies.
Changing assumptions, cutting services, obligating vendors to undertake their own repairs at the marina shops, leaving open job requisitions, and increasing IOP’s relatively low millage rates were all discussed at length. There was an awkward moment of hush in the room at the mention of using the City’s reserves to pay down the debt service (currently estimated $1.5 million), apparently for the first time in the budget process, and the idea was met with mixed reactions.
Mayor Jimmy Carroll, who had been unusually quite to this point, expressed a particular reluctance to draw from the City’s disaster relief fund, let alone so close to hurricane season. Other councilmembers wanted to understand the effects of the “what if” scenario. The treasurer reminded Council of the impending deadline for completion of the budget and proffered the idea of hiring a financial advisor.
Town Administrator Desiree Fragoso stated that she remained confident of meeting the City’s deadline, maintaining a balanced budget, and continuing the depth and breadth of IOPC’s services to the community.
For more information, visit the city’s website IOP.net.