The Cape Charles Town Council met this Thursday and approved expenditures for two big ticket items, the third offshore breakwater, and a small section of Mason Avenue that was purchased from Patrick Hand’s Strawberry Street Station project (former Meatland grocery store). The Mayor and Council attempted to gloss over much of the standard departmental reporting, due to the fact that a huge chunk of time was taken up by the Cape Charles Business Association’s President, Andrew Follmer, who gave a lengthy, yet circular presentation (which captured many of the points one might expect to find on an undergraduate Marketing 101 slide deck downloaded from an non-accredited junior college) on lessons learned from this summer’s tourist season. For the average Joe sitting in the audience, the takeaway from this presentation was, that despite a very good season and upward profits (docking fees up $15,000 , meals tax up 18.6% , and the hotel Transient Occupancy Tax up 47% ), the citizens are still not doing enough to support the merchant class in its quest to fill the greasy till. Follmer spent several minutes chastising the Town for not hiring more dedicated staff to perform professional functions like marketing the Town’s ‘Brand’, and checking the Town’s Facebook status.
The town Harbor Redevelopment Plan has five offshore breakwaters for protection of the harbor from westerly swells and waves built into the design. So far, two have been constructed at a cost of about $1M. According to staff, the breakwaters are needed to provide protection for the new floating docks. Council approved the third breakwater to the south at an estimated to cost of about $860,000, including construction engineering. According to the staff report, Bayshore Concrete Products offered excess concrete shapes from the closing Chesapeake facility for use in the project to reduce material costs. The town received 3 bids on October 6, 2015, with the low bidder being Coastal Design & Construction, Inc., “in the amount of $430,465 to construct the breakwater at 5’ above MLLW”. The total amount is $819,769, with a total contracted amount for construction and engineering at $859,269.
Councilman Wendell asked whether there had been any studies or models done to justify putting any breakwaters outside the harbor. Assistant Town Manager Panek said that there had been a study done several years ago, and he would try to find it in his office.
Opinion: We still feel there is a big difference between a study and a model– as we have seen in the past, these ‘studies’ appear to be more a VIMS writ from on high, telling us over the phone, “This is the best way to do it!”
Surfer Note: Surfers, especially on the west coast, have had issues with breakwaters since the mid 1960s, and Surfrider has been actively fighting them in court. They contend that they disrupt natural currents which affect the marine ecosystem, improved water quality and the restoration of waves that historically attract surfers. Other issues with breakwaters is that when they deflect the incoming waves before they reach the shore, these waves are deflected to other places (exposed areas of the coast) causing more erosion. Despite the expense and damage to vistas, breakwaters are unable to provide complete protection, and unprotected areas will be prone to erosion. Over time, sand will accumulate towards a breakwater. Downdrift sand will erode. A breakwater may work well for one small area, yet it can cause millions of dollars in beach erosion down the line.
The breakwater discussion inevitably brought up the status of the harbor. During his presentation, Mr. Follmer also used his opportunity to critique Smitty Dize’s approach to running the harbor, “There is a lot of potential not being realized there. We wish Smitty much success in his new venture, but our needs are different now, and its time to take it up a notch. We need to look at how we can meet those changing needs. We have a greater need for marketing skills, financial skills, hospitality skills– without losing control, we need to look at how we can meet those changing needs, they need to be researched before we just jump in and follow the same blueprint and just some old, another harbormaster along the same model of what Smitty did. One option is to contract out for specific skills rather than contract out for an individual. What that would mean would be bringing in a company…now we can get the skills we need across the board, you have flexibility in changing personal…it is hard to fire a town employee. Just swap him out, it’s that easy. We can finally get the top capacity in all the key areas.”
Councilman Wendell continued to question the Town’s accuracy in its financial accounting methodology,“You showed a deficit the harbor has incurred, and, as Smitty has alluded to, you showed that it lost $178,000, but Smitty said it was actually plus of $46,000. Can you explain that? That seems like quite a big difference.”
Treasurer Pocock responded, “Ill have to go back and look at it. There was a loss, I know there was a depreciation in the debt service.”
“Thats roughly a $234,000 difference,” Wendell said.
“I know,” Pocock said.
Wendell continued, “Well, we’ve always heard the harbor is self funding, but if the harbor loses $178,000, where does that come from?”
“Out of the General Fund,” Pocock said.
Wendell asked, “So, when the harbor is losing money, its not self funding, so everybody in town is paying for it, many of them never get to use the harbor services?”
Wendell, to the Council, “As we’ve heard about whether to sell or lease the harbor, the question that comes to my mind is what changes can we make, or best practices to try and make, to reduce the deficit at the harbor. The big numbers we’ve seen, if this were an independent small business, they would be looking at how you can raise revenues and minimize variable cost expenses. When I look at that sheet, as far as expenses, it was a big jump…I know we’ve hired a lot of additional personnel, now if you did this lease or brought in a management company, the first thing that person is going to do is find the line of labor he is going to need, so I would like to see the staff, the Town manager to put forth some common sense proposals…”
Mayor Proto said, “Frank, Frank, Frank…we got it. I think we all got it.”
Wendell responded, “No, I don’t think you do. Looking at the balance sheet I know you don’t, at least before I brought it up. It is our job to govern, to set policy, and I think we need to start doing that here. We need to lessen the burden of the harbor on the senior citizens and the working class folks that generally don’t get to use or enjoy the boating part of the harbor. We need common sense proposals that are going to move us back towards the break even. So what happened in the years where our expenses went from 16k to 65k, well, we made additional hires, like a full time maintenance person…now I know there are boards to be fixed, but I would like to see us use public works staff, and maybe have them spend less time driving around town and picking up sticks.”
Councilman Bennett said, “Don’t you think the common sense approach to optimize the harbor would include looking at management companies just to see what they might offer? I’ve looked at a few, and there are some that service the Chesapeake Bay, that part of their big draw is the amount of boaters they send to their own marinas. So if we’re going to do the common sense thing, we need to include that as part of the study.”
Interim Harbormaster Barbara Michaux responded, “Right now, we are running with just me and the one maintenance staff you are referring to, so there’s your savings. We’re doing that right now. So what I make, is not what Smitty made, so you’re saving money right there.”
Opinion: As far as common sense proposals, it seems that it’s staring them right in the face. Here you have a harbormaster and small crew doing what by all accounts is a very professional job manning the harbor, and Ms. Michaux also appears willing to do so at her current salary. All this talk about marketing and social media and financial wizardry is complete stupidity. It is just this kind of intellectual laziness and utter inability to walk Occam’s Razor that has left not just the harbor, but the entire town swimming in bad debt. Common sense? Hire Michaux right now. Another thing, while folks like Follmer seem to think the harbor needs more marketing and social media expertise, it shows their complete and utter ignorance in regards to the reality of life on the water. My best friend keeps his boat in the harbor, so I personally am down there every single weekend during the season. If you find an empty slip, you’re lucky. It’s always packed. So…where exactly are you going to put all these boats that social media and marketing are going to bring here? Moor them in the harbor….well? Also, from spending so much time down there, I can vouch for Michaux. She’s great, she loves her job, has a real appreciation for the harbor, and provides old school services that real boaters appreciate.
Council approved the purchase of a small area of Strawberry Street Station, LLC which offered to sell to the Town a 70’ x 105’ for use as a public right of way for the price of $50,000. Strawberry Street Station, LLC also offered to upgrade the location with pavers and landscaping for $20,000. This was approved at a previous meeting on February 18, 2015, but the deal was not completed last fiscal year due to “development project delays”. According to staff, “The new parcel has recently been subdivided and we are ready to move forward with the acquisition. Due to the delay, the Town Attorney has recommended adoption of a Resolution authorizing the purchase and improvement of the parcel. The Town Attorney will draft the purchase contract and closing documents”.
Council approved the second of three extensions for the Davis Disposal contract for waste collection and disposal contracts. The cost for residential service is $13.85 for year three.