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Nicklas Responds to Chip Ross Attack

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by Steve Nicklas, 5-6-23

Editor’s note: Last week, Fernandina Beach Commissioner Chip Ross ran an attack piece on local financial planner and pundit Steve Nicklas in several local publications, including this one. Here is Mr. Nicklas’ response

In my 30 years of following city and county politics, I’ve seen contentious city commissioners like Chip Ross and Mike Lednovich come and go. The best part is when they go.

Lednovich has been voted out of office after one costly term. Ross barely won re-election over a Black Lives Matter supporter and only after dirt was miraculously dug up on a stronger opponent. Ross has a year and a half to go. It couldn’t come soon enough — for the city’s sake.

Ross’ antics and histrionics have sullied the reputation of city commissioners so much that it’ll take a Madison Avenue public-relations firm to fix it. And a lot of time. Several promising candidates have been deterred by the thought of sitting alongside the opinionated Ross for an election cycle. Who can blame them?

For instance, Ross didn’t get his way with closing Brett’s Waterway Cafe. He and Lednovich wanted to rashly shut down the popular restaurant without knowing what to do if they did. They suggested posting “warning” signs” around the pillar of the downtown marina, for fear it might plunge into the silt from allegedly faulty pilings. 

City attorney Tammi Bach even floated the notion of tattling about Brett’s to its insurer. That was nearly two years ago. Yet Brett’s is still there, flourishing.

It was about the time of the high-rise condominium collapse in Surfside, Florida. In his infinite wisdom, Lednovich reasoned that if a collapse occurred in Surfside, it could happen here. Not sure that rationale holds water, but partner-in-emotion Ross agreed with it.

Mysteriously, a dodgy ethics complaint has been lodged over another commissioner’s alleged involvement with Brett’s. Everyone is hush-hush about it. Ross recused himself from a vote to have the city pay the commissioner’s legal fees, and you have to ask why. It seems to have caused a chilling effect on other commissioners.

Ross didn’t get his way when former city manager Dale Martin was rightfully fired. So he publicly fumes at meetings, interrupts discussions, and interjects snarky comments. He is intentionally complicating the search for a successor to Martin, who Ross appeared to control.

When Ross doesn’t get his way, he argues, ridicules and derides. He brought personal lawsuits against the state-chartered Port of Fernandina, mostly because he lives near it. He pushed for repeated tax increases, marched into a county commission meeting and demanded $500,000 for recreation equipment, and even sued our own city before he became commissioner.

Unlucky for us, Ross came here by way of Maryland. His unceremonious departure from there was chronicled in The Washington Post and in weekly newspapers where he lived – and not favorably. Lednovich came from California, but claims he’s originally from Florida. You can’t blame him for making that claim.

In a recent public records request, I asked for the debts the city currently carries, with interest rates and maturities. And whether the city pension plan is fully funded. I have heard that it is not. You would think this information is at their fingertips, in today’s high-tech world. 

Apparently not so. In response, they sent me a voluminous financial report from a firm hired by the city. During the past few years of unsurpassed property taxes and federal giveaways, you hope the city has paid down its debts. That was the reason for my inquiry.

I don’t write as harshly about other government spending here. The county and the school board have hardly been shining beacons of frugality. But their populations are growing at the speed of the national debt. Therefore, the need for more revenues is justified, to an extent.

The only things growing in the city are its budget, its staff and its fleet of vehicles. The population has increased only slightly in 10 years. However, spending has ballooned. It is a pervasive government mindset of spending every red cent of property taxes, fees, etc. And then asking for more.

Businesses have flourished, despite the constant harassment from city officials. You wonder sometimes why they endure the abuse. The fruits of tourism have drawn them though, like bees to honey.

The city has rightfully earned a failing reputation with builders in Northeast Florida. Most avoid the city like a gopher tortoise nest. Those who do build here secretly complain of strangling red tape, excessive fees and a general distain of city building officials.

The new city commission should halt projects and hiring and most spending to get their beleaguered arms around the bloated budget. This isn’t about getting rid of public safety, or public works, or anyone in particular. It’s about ensuring residents are getting what they pay for in an ever-expanding tax structure 

      In another of his long-winded columns, Ross asserts that I don’t attend city meetings. Maybe he’s not aware of it, but you can watch them live or taped on the city’s website. This is what I do, mostly so I can hit fast-forward through Ross’ incessant blabbering.

      Ross talks more and makes more motions than the other four commissioners combined. Hopefully, in the future, he’ll be quieted by being on the short end of 4-1 votes. He can pout and bury his face in his hands. He also needs to be chided and/or censored by the commission over presenting himself as a city spokesman, which he is not.

People say Ross knows his facts. He obviously has plenty of time to pursue them, while also bullying others into gathering them for him. He then can recite obscure statistics to support his skewed logic. He’s obviously intelligent, but that makes him even more problematic.

Ross may not go willingly. There are rumors that his wife may run for his seat. And I’m not sure if there is a Vegas line yet, but the odds are that Lednovich will run again. That’s my opinion.

I’m not sure the city could endure more devastating developments like these. Much like our country can’t handle more federal government spending. These guys have never seen a tax or a fee or a fine they didn’t like. 

A brighter and hopeful thought is the promising candidates who didn’t want to deal with Ross on the commission may now feel empowered. Hopefully, that’s the way things will go, when Ross and Ross+ go.

Steve Nicklas is the managing partner of Nicklas Wealth Management in Fernandina Beach. He is also an award-winning columnist. His columns regularly appear in weekly newspapers in Northeast Florida and in Southeast Georgia, and on his website at www.SteveNicklasMarketplace.com. He has published a book, “All About Money,” of his favorite columns from the past 20 years. The book is available on Amazon. He has also done financial reports for area radio stations and for National Public Radio in Jacksonville. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at 904-753-0236.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Citizens Journal Florida.

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