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Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Jun. 11, 201412:00 PM EST

City Council rejects money for water taxis; city attorney says transaction was 'unauthorized purchase'

by: David Chapman

The city’s purchase of two water taxis for almost $339,000 is technically done.

The authorization of that purchase isn’t done –– and won’t be in the near term after City Council by a 12-7 vote rejected the emergency part of the bill to take the money from the banking fund.

Without council’s approval, the “unauthorized purchase,” as city attorneys called it, leaves the near-term future of the service unresolved. Whether it could still be available for events, like this weekend’s Florida Country Superfest, isn’t immediately clear.

Karen Bowling, city chief administrative officer, told council members after the vote the administration’s team needed to “take a step back” to receive advice on what the vote means — whether the city could still go forward with service plans, would have to hold action or return the boats to the seller.

Without the boats, Bowling said it was a “pretty slim” chance an operator the city was negotiating with would be able to provide the service starting this weekend, after the boats receive proper Coast Guard inspections. That deal had the operator using the city-owned vessels for free, while paying expenses from the revenue collected.

Bowling said the boats were scheduled to arrive in Jacksonville on Tuesday evening and the money has been wired to Tavares-based Trident Pontoons.

For about an hour Tuesday, council members debated the merits of the emergency nature of the bill. Some, like Don Redman and Warren Jones, were in favor.

“Somebody made a mistake,” Jones said. “I don’t think people visiting Jacksonville should pay for that mistake.”

Others, like Denise Lee and Matt Schellenberg, referred to the service as an amenity and not an emergency.

One of the biggest critics of the deal has been council member Richard Clark, who maintained his stance the city needs to get its money back. After that, the council and the administration can have a “real discussion” on the matter but his personal belief is that the service should stay a private business.

But first, it’s a money issue.

“I think we’re going to get our money back,” he said after the meeting. “The legal argument is simple … they spent money they didn’t have.”

Council President Bill Gulliford said a series of questions about whether the purchase was a true emergency, the funding of the boats and a change in policy — effectively making the service a public function — led council to not approve the quick action.

As for the city receiving its money back, Gulliford wasn’t as sure as Clark.

“It’s up to the administration,” he said. “But, if you’re the seller of the boats, do you feel any compunction to give them their money back? It was a good faith deal and he was paid. The transaction was over.”

Bowling told council members during the meeting she would call the vendor to see if he is

willing to buy the boats back.

Gulliford also was critical of the administration borrowing from the banking fund for the purchase, which Chief Financial Officer Ronnie Belton said he decided Thursday evening because there were funds available.

Belton said he knew the expenditure would need to be approved by council, but the emergency situation meant spending the money to buy the vessels.

If Coast Guard inspections had been completed last week, the service could have been used over the weekend and in time for the U.S. Men’s National Team soccer match at EverBank Field on Saturday

Instead, there was no service and legislation introduced just before council met Tuesday was meant to ratify the decisions, or as Belton said, receive council’s “blessing.”

“It was no secret, it was never something we were hiding,” Belton said of the emergency legislation to approve the purchase.

Bowling has a meeting with the Coast Guard this morning about the inspections but told council members she expected to have a conversation with the city’s legal team about the situation.

Though the emergency was defeated, the bill remains intact and will be reviewed by council committees next week and could be voted on in as soon as June 24, the last meeting of the council year.

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