By REID TUCKER
After years of on-again, off-again talks, the DeFuniak Springs City Council voted to accept a bid of nearly a million dollars for the construction of a compressed natural gas fueling station.
Though the motion moved forward, it wasn’t a unanimous call. Councilmen Ron Kelley, Mac Work and Kermit Wright voted in favor of accepting the $999,581 bid from Patriot CNG, the lone bidder on the project, at the board’s Aug. 11 meeting, while Councilmen Henry Ennis and Mac Carpenter voted against. Discussion on the subject went back and forth for the better part of an hour before the Council rendered its 3-2 vote, and several members of the audience expressed their disapproval for the project.
Per the decision, the city will now seek out the appropriate financing to pay for the construction of the station, but that’s the sticking issue that got some in the audience, along with Ennis and Carpenter, speaking against the project. The city has 60 days from Aug. 8, when it received the bid, to finance the project.
Ennis called the project a “pie in the sky” dream, and Carpenter, while not opposed to the idea of a CNG fueling station, said the Council doesn’t have the necessary long-term planning in place yet to make decisions involving so much money with so much risk attached. He said a CNG station could be an important component of the city’s natural gas market, but urged the Council not to go forward until a market was secure.
“I’m not discounting the validity of this idea,” Carpenter. “My concern is we’re deciding to pursue this particular idea at the expense of everything else. It’s a million dollars, and that’s more than we bring in (through) taxes every year. That’s the magnitude of the decision we’re making. We’re spending more than one year’s worth of tax receipts hoping this will work out.”
On the other hand, Kelley supported the station project on the basis that there would be an eventual savings to the city (the Council voted unanimously to lock in lower than usual rates for its natural gas system) while also supporting the growing market of private CNG-powered vehicles.
“I don’t expect it to make money initially,” Kelley said. “None of the analysis we’ve looked at so far calls for that…but I see it as a cost-savings to us once we have it. We’ll go on saving that money indefinitely. It may not bring jobs, necessarily, but it does represent some significant savings.”
The Council received word through the city’s engineering consultation firm, Baskerville-Donovan, Inc., at a previous meeting that the sole applicant for the project put in a bid of more than $1.4 million. However, City Manager Sara Bowers and Baskerville-Donovan Project Manager Richard Delp managed to get Patriot CNG to “chop” all its costs, which included the highest equipment costs, leading to the revises proposal amount, which nevertheless came in above the $926,000-ish projected price tag. The total bid is composed of a base bid of $850,241, with the remaining $149,340 being for the fueling station’s backup generator and island canopy.
DeFuniak Springs resident J.B. Hillard expressed his belief that the community does not support the project, with fellow resident Shayne Betts calling for the matter to be put back before the citizenry at a public forum. Hillard, a longtime advocate for a long-term strategic plan for the city, said the CNG fueling station project “does not have a sense of direction” in terms of how the city ought to direct its finances. He further said the pushing-through of the CNG station project amounted to a string of “ad hoc decisions.”
Hillard and Betts proposed that the Council table the issue until a hearing could be held to gather public input, as there is still no firm, in-writing commitment to support the station from either Walton County or the Walton County Sheriff’s Office. The Walton County School District had a promise to support alternative fuels for its fleet, but did not specify when these vehicles would be purchased, said district employee Janie Griffith. The contingent of audience members not in favor of the project suggested the CNG station would not create many jobs and Hillard, among others, suggested using the money required by the project to support economic development for the city.
Discussion of the CNG station bid wasn’t the only contentious issue at the City Council meeting – in fact, there was little on the agenda that didn’t polarize the opinions of the board members or the members of the community in attendance.
Swimming in Lake DeFuniak was dead in the water after Work withdrew his motion to allow it, as several other councilmen and a few members of the public disagreed with the plan due to perceived increases in litter, noise, decreased property values, disruption of church services and similar complaints.
Similarly, debate swirled in the council chambers as to the relative traffic-controlling merits of speed bumps and speed humps as well as their relative potential to cause damage to the undercarriages of vehicles and thus to incur liability for the city. The Council did vote 4-1 in favor of releasing resident Helen Crenshaw and family from the obligation to pave the far north end of 18th Street, which had been conveyed to them by another landowner, but other issues regarding the police department’s alleged treatment of the Crenshaw family arose in the course of the discussion, so future issues may arise from that particular agenda item.
One area in which the Council was unified was in the adoption of the ordinance creating a waiver for restaurants located within 500 feet of a church or school to serve alcoholic beverages, provided that a written letter of permission is provided by representatives of the church or school. There was some concern from a few members of the audience that the ordinance might cut out the right of the public (or indeed the members of a congregation or parents of students at a school) to address the Council regarding decisions of this kind. However, the board members and city attorney assured everyone that mechanisms were in place to ensure that due weight is given to the public’s consideration in such cases.
By REID TUCKER