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Thursday April 17th 2014

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How to Spend a Windfall

RESTORE to Bring Dollars and Questions
By Jeremy Morrison

Local environmentalist Christian Wagley ventured to Washington D.C. this summer to celebrate the passage of the RESTORE Act. He listened as lawmakers talked about the measure that will send a majority of the Clean Water Act fines resulting from BP’s 2010 oil spill to the Gulf Coast states.

“They were all really excited, because they’ve worked harder on this than just about anything, I guess,” Wagley recalled. “They had worked really hard on what was an uphill battle.”

While one uphill battle—RESTORE’s passage—has been completed, there are more fights a foot, more work to be done. Decisions must now be made on how to spend what will eventually be pegged somewhere between $5 and $21 billion.

Waiting in line at his Panama City Beach hotel, Grover Robinson took a hot mid-August moment to return a phone call. The Escambia County Commissioner had gone east to attend a Florida Association of Counties meeting and hash out some specifics of the RESTORE payout.

“We’re still over here trying to finalize the formula,” Robinson said, before hanging up to check-in.

Once BP and the federal government arrive at a number, 80 percent of that amount will be divvied up according to a formula laid out in RESTORE. The formula basically splits the money into three pots: a third will go toward implementing the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council’s plan, a third will be split between Gulf Coast states equally and another third will be split between those states via a spill impact-based formula.

Whatever the final dollar amount is, Florida will be seeing a lot of money laid on its table. Escambia County, particularly, will be experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime windfall. Local officials are currently mapping out a process to facilitate the RESTORE money.

“I think we have to be prepared and ready to go,” said Escambia County Administrator Randy Oliver.

In Florida, legislators have decided that the eight counties disproportionately impacted by the spill, essentially the Panhandle, will receive 75 percent of the state’s allotment. Commissioner Robinson—who Oliver refers to as Escambia’s “oil czar”—went to Panama City Beach to discuss the state’s remaining 25 percent with other county officials at a FAC meeting.

“We’re all looking at what we’re going to do with that state money,” the commissioner said from his hotel room at the end of the day.

Along with the eight disproportionately impacted counties, there are another 15 coastal counties eyeing the state’s pot. The FAC is pushing for a 23-county consortium, which it contends will better enable a coordinated effort when deciding how and where to spend the money.

“I would go with the old adage of ‘united we stand,’” said FAC spokesperson Cragin Mosteller.

Robinson said Escambia will likely join the consortium, but he wants to make sure the areas most impacted by the spill see a representative chunk. The commissioner doesn’t want to see too much of the money sent eastward toward areas farther from the spill.

“The counties here feel like the consortium should be the same as the state law, which is a 75-25 split,” he said, drawing a clear distinction between the Panhandle and other counties. “One, they didn’t take too much of an impact. Two, they didn’t do much of the work.”

But the sliver of bounty Robinson is fighting for with the counties is a relatively small portion of Florida’s overall pie. Aside from the formula hammered out by the FAC, Panhandle counties will be seeing 75 percent of Florida’s RESTORE money. If the penalty is decided to be $10 billion, that means more than $113 million for Escambia; if it’s $20 billion, then twice that.

Florida is unique in the RESTORE process in that it passes money directly to the counties. That means local officials will soon have some pretty big numbers to play around with.

Escambia County is looking to establish a committee of relevant parties to determine how best to spend the windfall. Keith Wilkins, director of the county’s Community and Environment Department, is currently writing up some committee criteria for commissioners to review in September.

“What types of people are going to be on that advisory committee, that sort of thing,” Wilkins explained.

A rough sketch of the county’s committee consists of two members appointed by the county commission, one member appointed by the Pensacola City Council, an expert in economic development, someone from an environmental non-profit, a planner and, finally, an independent community member free from any associations. The county is looking at a seven-person body.

Wilkins said that commissioners have asked that no one be placed on the committee that has a direct link to an entity seeking funds (with the exception of the city) and that no elected official sit on the advisory body.

“More, I guess, community minded and esoteric,” the director described the ideal candidate.

City Administrator Bill Reynolds said he feels Pensacola should have a sizable seat at the table. He said Mayor Ashton Hayward would be the city’s representative.

“The city itself was impacted by this disaster and we should have a big voice,” Reynolds said, adding that the city had a number of projects in the hopper that could be applicable. “We should be doing things that are going to be game-changers for the city and the county.”

In a presentation made to the county commission in July, the allowed activities for the RESTORE money were laid out. It may be used on restoration/protection of natural resources; mitigation of damage to fish, wildlife and natural resources; implementation of federally approved marine, coastal or conservation management; and for workforce development and job creation.

“Most of that is for economic development,” Escambia County Commission Chairman Wilson Robertson said recently.

Commissioner Robinson clarified, explaining that the money would be put toward both economic and environmental ventures, but that “a majority of Florida’s damages are economic and there’s a separate pot for environmental.”

“Does it have to be 50-50? No. Does it have to be 100-0? I don’t think you’re going to see that,” Robinson said. “It should be something more than zero, but less than 50.”

Chairman Robertson said he didn’t know who might assume the environmental seat on the advisory board. He mentioned the Emerald Coastkeepers—a satellite of the national Waterkeeper Alliance, and traditionally the most visible local eco organization—but then says the group is probably too hard-line.

“I’m a little concerned about that, I could be wrong,” Robertson said. “I just think Coastkeepers are so strict they’ll want all of it.”

It’s doubtful on any account that the Coastkeepers will be participating in the process. The organization has effectively evaporated—no address, phone’s disconnected.

Chasidy Hobbs served the Coastkeepers from January 2010 to June 2011. She was a persistent voice for the environment throughout the spill. She’s still watching the story unfold.

“We don’t know the ecological impact yet,” the former Coastkeeper said.

Hobbs now teaches in the Environmental Studies department at the University of West Florida. She’s hopeful the coming RESTORE money will be used responsibly and put toward projects with lasting value.

“It’s definitely not beach renourishment, which is more of a development project,” Hobbs said. “It’s really unfortunate if that much money is going to be spent on something that the next hurricane is going to wash away.”

The UWF instructor said the county should seek out someone for the advisory committee who is knowledgeable about the local ecosystem. Wagley suggested seeking the input of the Surfrider Foundation, which actively monitors water quality.

Both environmentalists rattled off possible projects like seagrass and oyster bed restoration. They said tackling the area’s stormwater issues would improve water quality.

Wagley, who is a member of Sustainable Gulf Coast and also sits on the Mayor’s Urban Advisory Committee, said that RESTORE funds should be focused on “environmental restoration projects that have a lasting impact.”

Realizing that local officials are keen on economic development projects, Hobbs asked that the environment be considered in any RESTORE-related work. To do otherwise, she noted, would be “counter intuitive.”

“I realize there’s also economic impact, but if there’s going to be economic development projects—which is completely understandable—they should at least cause no more harm,” Hobbs said.