MADEIRA BEACH — A once-touted agreement to lease rather than buy city vehicles has not worked out as planned, and the city will now purchase its eight leased vehicles and will buy any future equipment needs.
The lease program, agreed to two years ago, has been a misfit for the city, Finance Director Andrew Laflin said at the May 26 City Commission meeting. Leasing of vehicles works well in situations, such as police cars, where there are a lot of miles driven and wear and tear on the vehicles, and in large cities with a lot of vehicles and a big area to cover, Laflin said.
The lease agreement “gave me a chill,” Laflin said, when he first saw it after coming to Madeira Beach last year as a financial consultant, and realized the interest rate built into the lease is more than 5%.
Laflin said the city already has its own mechanic to do maintenance, so it is more efficient to have the work done on-site rather than having a staff member take the vehicle out to an approved site and wait for the work to be done. Also, because the city is a small area and the mileage driven is low, the vehicles could be expected to last eight to 10 years rather than being replaced every five years as called for in the lease agreement.
“I don’t know why we got into the lease,” Laflin said.
Laflin recommended the department heads for Sanitation, Parks and Parking look at their leased vehicles and determine how long they expect to keep each vehicle.
“We don’t need a perpetual lease cycle for vehicles that will last eight to 10 years,” he said. For those vehicles “it makes a lot more sense” to purchase them outright. Laflin said city staff members feel the same way.
The vehicle leasing program, called the Fleet Management Plan, is run by Enterprise Fleet Management, which also owns Enterprise Car Rentals.
It was touted by that company as “offering the city the opportunity to modernize its fleet and save money.” When agreed to in late 2018, it was seen by then-City Manager Jonathan Evans as “a very sound way to manage our fleet” and was supported by the commission at the time. Only one of those commissioners, Nancy Hodges, is on the board now.
Interim Public Works Director Megan Wepfer said she was against the lease program from the beginning. “We would prefer it not move forward,” she said.
“Get out of the lease,” said Commissioner Doug Andrews. He said the city used to have trucks that were 25 years old but had low mileage because they are only driven around the island. “This is just fiscally irresponsible,” he said.
Commissioner Helen “Happy” Price said, “This is not cost effective. Let’s cut our losses.”
“Buy out (the lease agreement) at $190,000, and we’ve got all the vehicles. Get out of it, period,” said Mayor John Hendricks.
City Manager Bob Daniels said he would check with the department heads and see what vehicles they want to keep, and plan to sell the ones they don’t want, then purchase replacements as needed. He recommended this be approved as a part of the upcoming budget process.
“Let’s go ahead and do that,” Hendricks said.
Sanitation/recycling fee to increase
Recycling costs have risen dramatically over the past few years, and that is likely to cause the city to increase the sanitation fee that residents pay for trash pickup. Though recycling costs are a small part of the overall fee, the increases have been significant.
Laflin said the current sanitation fee per household is $21.83 per month, which includes $19 for refuse and $2.83 for recycling. The residents are billed every two months, so invoice amounts are doubled. The recycling vendor, Waste Connections, originally was charging the city $2.86 per household, but that went up to $6.23 in 2020 and now it is $6.44.
“So, quite simply, we are charging each household $2.83, and then we are in turn paying $6.44 to Waste Connections. So we’re losing money on that,” Laflin said. That loss can be eliminated by charging the residents the full amount the city is paying for recycling.
On the regular garbage, the city has not changed the rate since 2015. Actual costs for the city’s sanitation operation have gone up, primarily for personnel expenses. In order to bring revenues in line with expenses, fees would need to be increased for all customers, both residential and commercial.
That rate analysis will be done as a part of the budget process, and would take effect with the new fiscal year starting Oct. 1.
“We can’t keep subsidizing everybody,” Hendricks said. “We can’t keep absorbing this.”
He went on to question whether the city should continue the recycling program, because a lot of the material is going to the landfill. The value of some recycled material has plummeted in recent years.
Hendricks said, “I think we need to get some feedback from the community” on whether to continue the recycling program. The commission agreed to do a survey of residents, either with postcards or an online program.
Wepfer from Public Works pointed out that if recycling goes away, then the amount of regular trash would increase, offsetting some of the savings.
Price said she is willing to pay the monthly recycling fee. “I feel better recycling,” she said.
Hendricks had the opposite view. “It’s a noble cause,” he said, “but it doesn’t work.”
Dogs on the beach a serious problem
Dogs are not allowed on the city’s beaches, yet “more and more people are bringing their dogs to the beach, as if it were a dog beach,” Price said, reading from an email a neighbor sent to her.
This has become a serious problem, she said.
The number of dogs is greatest between 6 p.m. and sunset, when the dogs roam the beach, some leashed and some of them off-leash, the email said.
Price said she and her neighbor use the 133rd Avenue beach access, and “there are lots of dogs, and most of them are off-leash, running up to me, and jumping on other people’s blankets.”
Signs at the beach accesses say dogs are not allowed, but people bring them on a regular basis for a beach walk, Price said.
Dogs are not permitted on the beach for sanitary and ecological reasons, Price said. They are also a danger to nesting sea turtles.
A lot of people who bring their dogs to the beach do not live here, said Commissioner Nancy Hodges. There is signage, but some people may not notice the signs, she said.
Hendricks said the city needs to talk to the Sheriff’s Office about stepping up enforcement.
“There’s no sense having an ordinance if we don’t enforce it,” he said.
Resident Robert Preston said he had talked to the police deputies, who told him “if people say the dog is a service dog, they don’t go any further. The people don’t have to show proof.”
“That is absolutely wrong,” Preston said.
City Manager Daniels said the city’s two police deputies are aware of the dog problem and have altered their schedules so they can be there later in the evening for the sunset dog walkers.
“We need to get the word out to the residents that dogs are not allowed on our beach,” Daniels said, adding that he is including that information in the city newsletter.