Sunday, July 26, 2015

"Special Project" Revenue Bond Hearing Scheduled

Fairhope, Alabama.

 EDUCATION BUILDING AUTHORITY

St, Michael Catholic school
According to a legal ad in the July 10th edition of the Courier newspaper, a public hearing concerning a proposed $12.5 million bond to be issued by the city's new Education Building Authority will be held this Tuesday at 9AM in the council chambers. (see ad below)
  
The proceeds from the (tax-free, municipal) Bond will be used "to acquire, construct, and install capital improvements consisting of educational buildings, facilities, equipment, ... et. al. ... on real property at 11732 Higbee Rd.

The project will be owned by the city's new EBA (a public corporation), and leased/operated by the St. Michael High School (an Alabama nonprofit corporation); the revenue from the lease will be sufficient to pay principal and debt service on the Bond.

"The public hearing will provide an opportunity for all interested persons to express their views, both orally and in writing on the proposed issue of the Bond with respect to the project."

(As it was explained at the last council meeting, the Authority needed to be formed as a 'public corporation' to ensure tax-free status for the buyers of the proposed bonds according to complex federal IRS laws;  it allows for better terms for the borrower as well.)


NO OTHER NOTICES GIVEN

H. Hosch, standing second from right
No other notices of the hearing were published as is usually the case with other city committees; when asked about the ad after the last council meeting -- the mayor, council president, city attorney and city clerk denied any knowledge of it, who had arranged or paid for the ad.

The city clerk says she is usually the only person authorized to place legal ads for the city; but the mayor's secretary, purchasing department, and Planning Commission's secretary are also authorized in some cases.

Why the ad was placed two days before the new Authority was formally authorized by the city council is being questioned as well.

No mention of the planned bond hearing was made during the July 13th council meeting either.

Appointed simultaneously at the July 13th council meeting as its initial directors were Fairhope residents:

*Gary Cowles
*James Bailey
*Ellis Olinger III

When asked about it by a Times education reporter,  the Archdiocese's bond attorney Heyward Hosch replied only that: "As stated in the notice this is a hearing only, as to the location and nature of the project described, the construction of St. Michael Catholic High School. No meeting will be held and consequently no agenda has been prepared."

Only the "representatives" of the Authority are mentioned as being at Tuesday's meeting, possibly from the bank issuing the bond.


NO LIABILITY FOR THE CITY?

When the new Authority was approved during the last city council meeting, repeated assurances were given the city would never be responsible in any way for debts incurred by the Authority; but since it was also compared to the city's only existing such entity, the Airport Authority (as well as the Industrial and Health Boards), a number of citizens have since questioned that;  the city currently pays about $500K a year for the AA's debt service. (see video below)

Another big concern expressed to the Times is how the matter came up and was enacted suddenly, without first seeking more public input -- something this council is becoming notorious for.

Is his usual manner, councilman Mueller asked the puzzling question on everyone's mind: "If there is no liability by either party ... why does Montgomery (state legislature) require it?"

He was told it is a matter of federal, not state law.


NUMEROUS PREVIOUS EXAMPLES OK?

Despite lingering uneasiness about the debt and the way it was handled by the city council, such education building authorities appear to be relatively common around the state (the city of Daphne formed one in 2007 for the Bayside Christian School); and the Times can find no history of problems/issues concerning debt or debt-service payments with any of them.

But, we were told by someone with experience with another city Authority it could lead to additional requests for city investments or "in kind services"  for the religious school in the future.

Also, we have learned there is at least one more private school in the city interested in forming another Building Authority for improving its school buildings as well.






Saturday, July 25, 2015

Environmetalists Debate Beach Pollution Issues

Fairhope, Alabama. (fairhopetimes@att.net)

SEEKING HELP FROM COUNCIL 
Environmental Committee, June 2015

The city's Environmental Advisory Committee met twice recently to develop recommendations to the city council in time for next year's budget-cycle addressing many issues facing the city.

Various pollution/water-quality ones were discussed; but the most-pressing was thought to be the health hazard created by chronic Canada goose overpopulation at waterfront parks.

The long-standing issue flared up again last month when human-looking feces were noticed on Magnolia beach on June 6th, prompting speculation and numerous "viral" tv news reports and videos; but when tested later was found to be 80% of goose origins -- and the rest sea gulls and other animals (0% human).
Magnolia Beach evidence

(A close-up frame from the video taken by Elliot Gordon appears at right.)

At least two studies done in the last decade cited evidence of various infections in humans from pathogens after swimming at the beaches.

Runoff from inland homes, streets, and farms (cows, fertilizers, etc.) were also areas of concern in past studies.


 OTHER ISSUES

Also discussed at this first meeting in June was the possible re-design of the "treatment pond" north of the main duck ponds so that it could handle (filter) higher volume before it goes into the bay. City engineer Jinright is working on a preliminary survey and elevations, members were told.

Chairman Mike Shelton at right
A re-design of the main ponds themselves is also possible, to direct more outflow north through the treatment pond; this could prove costly though, according to Public Works officials.

(The committee also discussed how to better communicate the real "facts" to the public, BP fine money distribution -- and voted to change its meeting time to later in the day (3PM) to accommodate members who had work conflicts.)


NO-FEEDING SIGNS STRONGLY RECOMMENDED

After a lengthy discussion, committee members also recommended unanimously the city council put up signs in the duck pond area prohibiting the feeding of geese and other birds -- and explaining it is because of serious health hazards (feces/bacteria) to children/adults ... and the geese themselves who become domesticated and too dependent on humans.

Canada geese overpopulation
Members conceded it would be a controversial step and enforcement would be problem; but the serious health issues are the overriding concern.   One said just putting the signs up could reduce feeding (and feces) by 80%.  

Still under discussion are other methods such as treating grass with a "food coloring" the geese find distasteful, mowing higher, and less watering and fertilizers to limit new-grass growth.

Apparently the geese prefer the young new shoots of grass over the older tougher ones.

(The Times has learned an experimental, flashing optical device designed specifically for Canada geese dispersal without harming them is to be tried as well)



OFFICIALS ATTEND NEXT MEETING

Gilespie, July meeting
General superintendent Gilespie and Public Works director Fidler attended the committee's next monthly meeting in July -- to give requested progress reports and try to answer questions.

Gilespie told the committee plans are in the works to dig out city marina slips in Fly Creek: a private contractor will be hired to dig out the "spoils",  put it in leakproof dumpsters and transport it to a landfill -- possibly the city's own C and D landfill.

(Sometimes the material can be "laid out" exposed to the sun for about a month to let uv rays neutralize contaminants.)

Contractors will also be responsible for "doing it right" and all the necessary testing and permitting required.

There are no current plans for dredging at the main pier marina at this time: that would be the joint responsibility of the city and Rick Gambino, the new restaurant/marina operator.


DUCK POND DRAINAGE ISSUES

July meeting. Fidler at right
Public works director Fidler then gave an update on the many issues facing the duck ponds and municipal beaches: She said the ponds are not functioning way they were designed ... to direct the outflow through the wetlands at the extreme northern end ... which should be filtering and treating the water before it discharges out into into the bay. Currently water is "spilling over dams" far short ... and going directly out into the bay over the beach, she said.

She said she had already met with city (contracted) engineer Trey Jinright (Jade Consulting) as requested by the committee at an earlier meeting, -- and he thought the wetland treatment pond on the north-end would need to be expanded at least (That pond was added for that purpose in about 1999). 

But, because each pond is at a different elevation -- and the low point is near the middle-part  (Northwest side) not at the  far north end -- earthen berms or other devices may need to be constructed to make all water discharge through the northern treatment pond.

Fidler suggested the committee may want to recommend sufficient funding be put in next year's budget ("Beach fund") for the necessary surveys and engineering work: "How do we solve the elevation issues? We need a survey first ... won't be an inexpensive fix ... ."

Member Ron Allen, a former EPA official,  called it a "serious issue" and said the council needed to "get it done' and start by funding the necessary surveys and studies   -- and plan to implement solutions over the next 2 to 3 years.

Gary Gover at right
By their next meeting, the committee asked Fidler to get back with Jinright for some rough cost estimates to do the surveying and engineering work -- plus some possible final solutions such as changing pond elevations (berms?), relocating storm drains from the bluff above, diverting natural springs, enlarging the treatment pond, and additional aeration. 

The committee would then formulate its formal requests/recommendations to take directly to the mayor and council.

Since the mayor has already started composing next year's budget and time is running short, a special meeting could be called before the regularly scheduled one in August.

(Around $10K was one figure mentioned for preliminary work.)

 

ponds drain over beach now


July environmental committee













Thursday, July 23, 2015

Mayor Says Use RESTORE Money For Local Roads

Fairhope, Alabama.
Mayor Kant, center

EASTERN SHORE MPO MEETING

At the end of their quarterly meeting Wednesday in Daphne, MPO Policy Board chairman Mayor Tim Kant proposed that the state's one-billion-dollar portion of BP RESTORE ACT fine-money be used for transportation projects -- and not just for debt reduction/servicing for the state's general fund -- as has been proposed by Governor Bentley.

Kant: "Everybody's been talking about the billion dollars ... if it has to go into the general fund ... hopefully it will go into transportation ... ."

"I personally believe ... at the end of the day ... providing jobs and generating development ... will provide more revenue for the state ... than just paying off interest debt ... as they are proposing."

"The state has major traffic issues ... that have to be addressed ... . Hopefully the message will get back to the highway department and the governor ... when they start making decisions about spending the (fine) money."

(The proposed settlement must still be approved by a federal court judge.)


TECHNICAL ADVISORY COMMITTEE ASSIGNED JOB

Kant called it "imperative" the MPO's Technical Advisory Committee start work now to come up with potential uses for the money (road projects) "so we can submit them" on short notice.

He proposed combining revenue sources like the MPO, ALDOT, RESTORE ACT,  and local matching funds to expedite progress.

Major road projects like the widening Hwy 181 to four lanes through Fairhope are now on the "visionary list" (purple on map): there is no money to do them.


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

New Spash Pad Opens For Heat Wave

Fairhope, Alabama.

VERSION 2.0

After the original one had to be demolished due to construction defects, its replacement opened this morning without fanfare to the delight of kids of all ages.

The dry weather for the past two months helped the contractor (J.A. Dawson) complete it on schedule.

City engineers were still fine tuning its intricate control system early this morning.


















Monday, July 20, 2015

Issues Arise At City's Personnel Board

Fairhope, Alabama.

SEVERAL RESIGNATIONS

Three members of the city's personnel board resigned recently for personal reasons according to HR director Pandora Heathcow: Judy Hale moved to Spanish Fort, attorney Clark Stankoski became a circuit court judge, and Wayne Griffin just "retired."

Remaining are Diane Thomas and Sherry Douglas; councilman Kevin Boone is the non-voting liaison.

The board cannot function without at least three members, according to enabling legislation.

Also, some confusion has arisen about the salary and compensation study update commissioned by the mayor and presented to the council last month by Thomas and Lorenzo Howard (a former PB member)-- and whether the full board ever voted on the final report; but there is apparently no connection to the resignations.

(The Times tried to get a copy of the report, but was denied access because if had not yet been formally approved by the board)


NEW APPLICANTS SOUGHT
Howard, Heathcoe, Thomas

Heathcoe said that anyone interested in being on the committee should apply via the city clerks office or online.

Unlike most other city committees, this one performs a vital service: reviewing appeals of personnel decisions made by the Administration.  It also helps develop personnel policy, via recommendations to the city council.

Lorenzo Howard has indicated an interest is serving again, but has not yet applied.

Members receive no compensation. 

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Splash Pad Progress Report

Fairhope, Alabama.

COMMUNITY PARK

Possibly due to high public anticipation during the heat wave, interesting features are rapidly being installed at the city's re-designed aquatic park on Church St. -- including a ship's bow sprayer, crocodile sprayer  and the pirate sloop rain drop buckets

The pirate canons should prove to be particularly popular -- especially with boys.

The foundation is noticeably improved over the old pad: it is cup-shaped to catch water where the old one was flat, allowing runoff.

Splash pad specialists J.A. Dawson is the contractor: cost of $95,754.




Saturday, July 18, 2015

Updated: More Problems At The Library

Fairhope, Alabama.

Update: The Times has learned this air conditioning failure may have been caused by lightning.

Fairhope library
AIR CONDITIONING FAILS

The library had to close today due to an air conditioning problem: a chronic issue there for many years.

The reason for the failure has not yet been announced, but the complex "zoned" control system has always been problematic.

Exterior stucco peeling off and roof-leak issues also continue.



FRENCH DRAIN INSTALLED

Some progress is being made though: a French drain has been installed by Public Works to relieve drainage issues at the back of the building.

Fairhope library French drain



New Law May Improve Government Transparency

Fairhope, Alabama.

NO MORE SECRET MEETINGS?

Fairhope city council
In almost any state but Alabama the headline "Secret Meetings Again Illegal" would have been almost-laughable; but recent updates to the state's open meeting laws (aka 'Sunshine') could have a big positive impact in Fairhope as well where "lack of transparency" has often been a major concern of citizens.

According Shelly Haskins, director of opinion for Al.com,  a 2012 Supreme Court ruling made it possible for government bodies to hold meetings in private "until a decision was made -- only to be ratified in public later with little or no discussion."

The update restricts such meetings and also grants any citizen the right to sue for suspected violations of the Open Meetings Act; with new penalties up to $1,000 per violation. County district attorneys and the state attorney general may also prosecute.

Hopefully, open meeting laws will now be taken more seriously: "Thankfully the Legislature came through and protected the public's right to have its business conducted in public."

Al.com report
According to Alabama's Secretary of State:

"This law guarantees that Alabama's citizens have open access to agencies, boards, commissions, and other governmental bodies which conduct the people's business."  click here


MANY PROBLEMS NOTICED HERE TOO

Various Times' reporters noticed what seemed to be a dramatic increase in such activity here about 8 months ago -- not just by the city council but the planning commission and most city committees/sub-committees as well.

When we asked city officials about it, we were told it was "no big deal" and it has "always been done that way here";  a reporter was even threatened verbally by one council member and subjected to intimidation by committee members and at least one police officer.

One trick that has frequently been used is what the Times' calls the "post-meetings" where council or committee members (and sometimes city employees) mill about acting like the meeting is over, only to go back to discussions after the media and public has left (which most are anxious to do anyway); a practice that could rise beyond a mere misdemeanor in certain cases.

City employees whose jobs may be at stake are put in a particularly bad spot we are told, when forced to participate in such things.

A separate state ethics law requires anyone witnessing a violation to report it to appropriate agencies.

.


Thursday, July 16, 2015

New 'Aquatic Park' To Open Soon

Fairhope, Alabama.

LATE NEXT WEEK?

Community park
Just in time for a prolonged heat wave, the city's replacement splash pad is getting painted today; and the pirate-themed equipment is to be installed next week, weather permitting.

The concrete pad had to cure for a month before progessing.














Tuesday, July 14, 2015

New Pier Restaurant Opening Planned

Fairhope, Alabama.

The 'Shux' restauant on the pier expects to have a "soft" opening within two weeks, according to internet postings.

Until last Spring, the old 'Yardarm' occupied the building for many years; the new owners assumed the lease for the building for a minimum of $5,000/yr. (It could be higher based on annual gross receipts and CPI increases, but details are not made availble to the public)

25% of the annual gross for stall rentals at the adjacent marina are also to be paid to the city; that figure is not made public either.

The city's Harbor Board recently approved the installation of electric boat lifts there, on the south and west sides.