JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The city is demanding its money back on two pontoon boats bought from a south Florida company because they arrived too late, not because City Council is questioning whether the Mayor's Office purchased them legally.
The Mayor's Office ordered the taxis early this month when the Baltimore vendor that was providing water taxi service on the St. Johns River announced it was pulling out because it was losing money and had been denied a long-term contract. In an effort to prevent an interruption of water taxi service, the city paid over $340,000 to buy the two boats and made arrangements with an Atlantic Beach company to operate them.
But the administration's purchase of the boats out of the city's emergency fund became a problem when City Council on Tuesday denied approving the request as an emergency.
The first of the two boats arrived at a marina on the Westside on Thursday afternoon even though the city says it asked the company on Wednesday to return the money. The two boats were supposed to be delivered last week.
The General Counsel's Office sent a statement Friday saying: "This action is the best step as we continue toward a long-term solution to continue water taxi service Downtown. We will now move forward with seeking a private company to provide the service."
The city lawyers demanded the money be returned within three days.
"There have been so many twists and turns over the last several days and I have to apologize if there was an information gap," Chief Administrative Officer Karen Bowling said on Friday. "That is why we wanted to hold the project and regroup and go forward from there."
The outgoing City Council president, Bill Gulliford, said it sounds like the administration is finally doing the right thing.
"I don't know if they have a lot of choice, because if the council voted not to appropriate the money or support what they have done, they would be in the same predicament or worse," Gulliford said. "So they might as well face the music now."
The city said a new request for bids from vendors to operate the water taxi service will go out next week, but that process could take months.
"Everyday we've had people step up wanting to help," Bowling said. "We've heard from both captains. We've heard from companies who want to try and make this happen."
Late Friday, Harry Frisch, the head of Beaver Street Fisheries offered to buy the boats and give them to the city. Frisch said he can't see Jacksonville without water taxis -- especially during big downtown events and Jaguars games -- and is going to do this because of all Shad Khan has done for the city.
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