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Jax Daily Record Tuesday, Jun. 10, 201412:00 PM EST

General Counsel's Office says purchase of water taxis was legal

by: David Chapman

A $338,000 emergency purchase for pontoon boats last week was called illegal by City Council member Richard Clark, but an opinion issued Monday said the move was legal.

The city, by law, has the authority to make emergency purchases, said Assistant General Counsel Tim Horkan. The move was justified, Horkan said, if the city’s Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department determined the water taxi was an “essential government service” or if the city’s procurement chief was of the opinion its loss required such action.

Both happened, Karen Bowling, the city’s chief administration officer, said Monday.

“This is bigger than boats,” she said.

The city’s focus on Downtown development, a string of summer events that would rely on the service, the transportation the taxi provides and the economic impact of losing the service would have on groups such as hotel operators warranted the emergency spending, she said.

A tentative schedule has the Coast Guard inspecting the boats Wednesday with service resuming Friday, a day before the Florida Country Superfest begins at EverBank Field.

The city is working on a short-term deal with Atlantic Beach-based Multi Marine Services to operate the two boats. Under such a deal, the vendor would use the city-owned vessels for free, pay for all expenses and keep the remaining revenue.

The long-term solution would come from a request for proposals that could have a vendor in place in about six months, said Greg Pease, procurement chief.

Minimizing the time the service isn’t operating combined with the time it would take to find a full-time vendor meant purchasing the used vessels was the only way the city could maintain service this summer, Bowling said.

Clark last week disagreed, saying there “is no such thing as an emergency for water taxis” and that the spending should have been approved by council. On Tuesday, he said his opinion on the matter hasn’t changed and he was “more disappointed than anything” about how the issue has been handled.

Council member John Crescimbeni last week said he was bothered by the move because the former contract with Baltimore-based Harborcare LLC expired in January and another plan wasn’t in place.

Horkan addresses both parts of the conflict in his opinion.

“Reasonable people may disagree about whether the water taxi service is an ‘essential government service’,” Horkan states, later adding: “Reasonable people may also disagree about whether the termination of the current contract ... was ‘reasonably unforeseen’.”

Clark last week also had questions of how the money was being appropriated, which city Budget Officer Glenn Hansen said Monday was coming from the banking fund. Council members in recent years have been critical of spending from that account and tried cutting back on borrowing from the fund.

Horkan opined that the General Counsel’s Office is “not in a position at this time” to determine if the money was properly appropriated. He said the office is willing to meet with the city’s budget office and council auditors to discuss the issue.

Council members will have the chance as a group to discuss the matter when they meet at 5 p.m. today for a regular meeting. Bowling said she and other city staff will be on hand to answer any questions members might have on the topic.

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