The city demanded Robbie Cunningham return close to $339,000 paid to him two weeks ago for boats meant to continue Downtown Jacksonville’s water-taxi service.
The ultimatum was sent Friday. The deadline was Wednesday. The result was silence.
“To come back and blame me is ridiculous,” Cunningham said Wednesday.
It was the latest development in the attempt by Mayor Alvin Brown’s administration to resume water-taxi service after the vendor left Jacksonville over a contract dispute. The administration bought the boats without City Council approval, making it an unauthorized purchase, a city lawyer said.
Cunningham, owner of Tavares-based Trident Pontoons Inc., was sent the letter Friday because the company “failed to meet its promises and failed to timely deliver fully operational and certified vessels” in time to avoid disruption of service, according to city attorney David D’Agata.
Cunningham said Wednesday he “never, ever, ever” guaranteed the 102-passenger Lady L and 50-passenger Sea Charm 1 would make it to Jacksonville by June 7 — only that he would try. Try being the underlined word in the email he sent to Chief Administrative Officer Karen Bowling on June 5, the day the city decided to purchase the boats.
As for the certification, Cunningham said in the same email he “may” be able to obtain a temporary certificate of inspection from the Coast Guard because of a relationship with the local officers. Typically, he said, the process “takes quite a few months.”
The email asked for a letter of intent to purchase the vessels so he could finalize negotiations with the owners. He told the Daily Record that he received a signed letter of intent from Bowling and the money wired by the city, but not a signed purchase order he submitted.
City spokeswoman Pam Roman said by email Wednesday that Bowling was on vacation and she had yet to confirm whether such a letter was sent or signed.
The purchase order and the invoice Cunningham submitted had no specific delivery date.
“I never made any promises as to when they would be there,” he said, instead referring to the dates as “fluid.”
“I told them if they wanted to purchase any (boats), they needed to purchase immediately … and I would do everything humanly possible to help,” he said.
Five days after the money was wired and the boats were bought, council denied appropriating the money for the purchase. An assistant general counsel told council the administration’s action was an “unauthorized purchase,” another point D’Agata referenced as being necessary for Cunningham to return the money.
Cunningham said he has become the “scapegoat” in the disagreement between council and Brown’s administration.
“I understand those folks are in a tough place with council,” he said. “That wasn’t my fault. Why am I all of the sudden the piece of bologna between the two pieces of bread?”
On the evening of June 11, the day after that council meeting, Bowling sent Cunningham an email indicating she left a message on his cellphone and asked him to immediately suspend transporting and delivery of the boats. Bowling said later that week it was not in response to council’s actions, but the missed deadlines.
The 50-passenger Sea Charm 1 arrived the next day at Sadler Point Marina in Ortega, but no one from the city showed for the Coast Guard inspection, Cunningham said.
He plans to deliver the Lady L in the next couple of days.
“I’m going to deliver the second boat as I promised,” he said. “I just don’t feel it’s right that I am put in the middle of it.”
Cunningham said he was “very candid” about the process with the administration and “pulled out all the stops” to coordinate paying for the boats himself for the city to purchase. It’d be “crazy” to go back to those vendors and ask for his money back.
He also addressed the question of the difference in prices on the Lady L.
A listing on yachtworld.com showed the vessel listed at $159,995, but the city paid $212,800. Cunningham said he paid $155,000 for the boat, but said the city price included work he performed on the boat, logistical efforts and a warranty. He said he explained that to city Procurement Chief Greg Pease days after the boats were purchased.
The Daily Record found the online listing for the lower price and asked administration officials June 9 what made up the difference. They didn’t acknowledge ever seeing the listing beforehand, but Cunningham said Pease called him either that day or the next and talked about the difference.
“My time, my energy and work are worth every penny I charged,” Cunningham said. “I didn’t just throw a figure on there … I didn’t once offer them a product not worth what they paid for it.”
He said the city received a good deal on the boat and if it was to order the same vessel elsewhere it likely would have cost much more.
He said the city called him Tuesday, but he has not called back but would today — past the city’s deadline for him to repay the money.
Whether that means legal action is next is speculative at this point, but Cunningham said he was not concerned.
“Hopefully they will see reason,” he said. “If they choose to do something different, then we’ll see where that goes.”
Roman said in an email Wednesday that the General Counsel’s Office has said it’s inappropriate for the city to speculate on the next steps at this point.
The request for proposals for a permanent water-taxi vendor is moving ahead, though.
The Competitive Sealed Proposal Evaluation Committee will meet at 1 p.m. today. If the committee approves the request, it will go out for bid June 25 and remain out for 21 days.
Another option presented Friday also is still alive — the possibility for an individual to buy the boats.
Beaver Street Fisheries owner Harry Frisch offered Friday to buy the boats, saying he didn’t want to lose the opportunity for the city to benefit from them.
For the moment, though, the Sea Charm 1 is docked in Ortega, with decals labeling it as Jacksonville Water Taxi. And soon enough, the other will be in Jacksonville, Cunningham said.
“They bought two boats from me,” he said. “I am going to deliver two boats.”