Emergency Water Taxi Purchase OK, But Whether Money Was Appropriated Legally Unclear

The assessment came hours after city officials stood firm behind their decision to spend $338,500 acquiring a pair of vessels to replace the privately run water tax service that shut down Friday

Jacksonville officials were legally entitled to buy a pair of water taxis on an emergency basis -- but whether the money was appropriated legally is a question for another day, a city lawyer concluded Monday.

The assessment came hours after city officials stood firm behind their decision to spend $338,500 acquiring a pair of vessels to replace the privately run water tax service that shut down Friday. This amid criticism of the move from City Council members.

The city's Office of General Counsel "is not in a position at this time to determine whether the funds used to purchase the water taxis were properly appropriated," Assistant General Counsel Tim Horkan wrote in a memo released a little after 6 p.m.

Attorneys usually rely on the city's budget office or City Council auditors for guidance on financial matters, Horkan wrote in the memo to General Counsel Cindy Laquidara, adding he was "willing to meet ... to discuss the appropriation issues in more detail."

Money for the boats came from the city's banking fund, an account used to pay for capital items like long-lasting equipment and then repaid over time, said city budget officer Glenn Hansen.

City managers had put a high priority on keeping water taxis running downtown.

The vessels are part of the city's brand, Chief Administrative Officer Karen Bowling said, something that's advertised to visitors and meaningful to downtown hotels and restaurants.

"If this city was going to have water taxi service anytime this summer, the only way was to buy them," Bowling told reporters.

While Jacksonville might still hire a company that brings its own water taxis to town or leases the city's vessels, Bowling said the process of advertising for offers from companies, then evaluating them, negotiating a contract and letting a vendor get ready could take six months.

The decision to buy a pair of used boats now -- one big enough to hold 102 people, the other 50 people -- was meant as a stopgap until a long-term solution was found for the void created when Baltimore-based HarborCare LLC gave two weeks' notice that it was quitting Jacksonville.

But the fact that the city had been caught unprepared had drawn criticism from City Council members, some of whom also challenged the legitimacy of an emergency purchase the Procurement Chief Greg Pease approved last week.

"My personal opinion is this is certainly not an emergency," said Councilman Richard Clark, who had criticized the deal.

HarborCare's contract expired in January and an extension the city drafted had not been signed by the company, Bowling said. She said a division chief overseeing the contract would have done well to spot that as a trouble sign, but that in any event decisive action was needed when the HarborCare pulled out.

Clark said the city should have thought through its plans for water taxis when the last contract was running out, rather than when events had overtaken them.

"It's infuriating that we're this far into this administration and they can't seem to get it," he said.

Horkan wrote that there was some grounds for considering the water taxi case an emergency.

"Reasonable people may disagree about whether the water taxi service is an 'essential government service,' " Horkan wrote. "...However, the fact that the city has ongoing advertisements of water taxis and relies on them to transport large numbers of people during [special events] ... may support" the ruling Pease made last week.

The city had initially planned to have the boats in town and operating by last weekend, but said that timeline slipped when the Coast Guard said required inspections couldn't be done that fast. The boats are still with manufacturer Trident Pontoons and are scheduled to be delivered this week, said city spokesman David DeCamp.

Still unsettled is who will operate the boats. The city has made an offer to Atlantic Beach company Multi Marine Services Inc., but Bowling said no contract has been signed. The deal on the table now would allow Multi Marine to operate the boats for a token lease and collect fares, and the company would pay for expenses such as fuel and maintenance. Bowling said that arrangement would be reviewed a few weeks after the service begins -- if it does.