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The Buzz 9/20/12

Preparing for RESTORE The Escambia County Commission has started down the long road. It is a road potentially paved with many millions in treasure.

When the federal government arrives at a dollar amount for Clean Water Act fines levied against BP—estimated to be between $5 and $20 billion—the RESTORE Act has guaranteed a good chunk of that money will come to the Gulf Coast. Commissioners are currently drawing up a possible road map as to how to spend Escambia’s share.

“This is gonna take a year or so before we ever decide how to spend this money,” County Administrator Randy Oliver told the commission.

The administrator recommended that the commission form an advisory committee—consisting of either seven or nine members—that would help evaluate potential uses for the funds. He suggested the body be made up of experts in the respective fields of finance, business, transportation, planning, and government, as well a representative from the city of Pensacola and from the environmental
community.

Chairman Wilson Robertson said he believed the RESTORE money to be intended for economic development projects, as opposed to environmental restoration work.

“This pot of money we’re talking about, as I understand, is for economic development projects,” the chairman said.

Commissioner Grover Robinson—who has been heavily involved in the oil spill-aftermath logistics—clarified that while there was the possibility of other funds available for environmental purposes, the
RESTORE money is also meant to address environmental concerns.

“We do have NRDA. We hope that things will work out in NRDA, but we don’t have any control over it,” Robinson said. “This pot is clearly for environmental and economic.”

Oliver told the commissioners to expect a presentation from its yet-to-be-formed advisory committee next summer. Once criteria and process specifics are decided, the committee will be appointed by January.

“This is what I call a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Oliver told the commissioners, stressing the importance of prioritizing potential projects. “They need to be game-changers.”

Budget Battlefield If summer was the hunt, the second public budget hearing was the kill. Council President Sam Hall laid it out pretty plainly for Chief Financial Officer Dick Barker.

“A lot of people just look at the budget as being about dollars and cents,” Hall told him. “It’s a political document.”

Firing a political shot across Mayor Ashton Hayward’s bow, the council decided to pull mounds of marketing cash from his proposed budget and also effectively defund his chief of staff’s position.

“I think it puts the mayor on notice,” said Councilwoman Maren DeWeese.

Following a contentious stretch of budget sessions, the city council zeroed in on two targets. First, it siphoned $220,000 away from the city’s new marketing effort with the Zimmerman Agency and transferred it into the council’s budget. Secondly, the council drained $120,000 from the mayor’s professional services budget—out of which he pays for his Chief of Staff John Asmar—and moved that money into a police officer’s training fund.

“It sends the signal that we want to have a conversation about how this city moves forward,” said Councilwoman Megan Pratt.

For months, the council has tailed both targets. Members have bemoaned the Zimmerman contract—costing $1.2 million for the first year—as bloated and redundant. Some have also painted the mayor’s chief of staff as city hall’s seventh-floor bully.

Councilwoman Sherri Myers began the Sept. 12 conversation by pointing out the increases in marketing dollars for the mayor and also the MIS department. She suggested the council hit both stashes—$50,000 in the mayor’s budget and $170,000 in the public information office—and place the funds within the board’s budget.

Myers told the council she would like to use the money to hire staff to assist the board.

“I think that we need to have more than one staff person,” she said. “I envision us having at least one staff person that has an assistant.”

Myers said she would also like to see some of the more than $200,000 set aside in case the council needs to hire its own attorney. Currently, the councilwoman is involved in a lawsuit with the mayor.

“Just the nature of our political system now, where the city attorney represents both the mayor and the council, that doesn’t always work,” she said.
City Administrator Bill Reynolds offered up a defense of the marketing efforts. He said pitching the city to the outside world was a chance for Pensacola to boost its population numbers and grow the tax base. The administrator painted the marketing campaign—aimed at luring businesses to the area—as the city’s best chance of moving forward.

“The one area we can actually do something about is trying to bring businesses in,” Reynolds told them. “The only way it is going to happen is through a concerted effort, a professional effort to go out and market this place.”

The city administrator also addressed council criticism over the marketing’s focus on the mayor, what the Zimmerman Agency referred to as “CEO branding.” Reynolds said Hayward was a natural choice to represent the city.

“That’s why this man was elected,” he said. “And, frankly, he’s an asset in that regard.”

Reynolds told council that the marketing effort was particularly important because the city needed to avoid dropping below 50,000 in population numbers. Such a decrease—which is a concern for the city—would bring with it the loss of federal grant money.

“I truly am sorry that members of council were offended that the city—not the mayor’s office—was trying something new,” he said.

Council showed little sympathy for the marketing campaign.

“If you think of the old slogan—‘Where thousands live the way millions wish they could’—maybe if we did that we wouldn’t have to try so hard to get people to move here,” said Councilwoman Megan Pratt.

The council considered pulling all funding related to the Zimmerman marketing campaign. That option was not pursued after Chief Financial Officer Dick Barker said he didn’t think that the airport and Pensacola Energy could afford the stall in their marketing efforts.

The mayor’s chief of staff was not mentioned by name during the budget hearing. Hall briefly mentioned “a particular target on the seventh floor” and Councilman Larry B. Johnson motioned to remove $120,000 from the mayor’s professional services budget. The motion passed on a 7-1 vote—with Wu dissenting—and the money was placed in a police training fund.

The council, and Johnson particularly, has expressed concern with the mayor’s chief of staff in the past. Following the public hearing, the councilman said the transfer was unrelated to Asmar.

“I view that as we have a crime issue in our city and I’m gonna look at areas where we can make cuts in our budget,” Johnson said. “After studying the budget, I thought there could be some room there.”
Johnson said he had not consulted with Police Chief Chip Simmons or union president Erik Goss—who spoke at the budget hearing—but said transferring the funds into the police budget was “a service to our community.”

Councilwoman Myers said she also did not look at the move as a personal matter—“because I like Mr. Asmar and everybody knows I like Mr. Asmar”—but took issue with the fact that the chief of staff position was privatized.

“I would like to see the chief of staff be an employee position rather than a vendor position,” Myers said, adding that she was also against privatizing the city attorney position. “I did not vote to approve that contract, I am very much opposed to privatizing the city attorney’s office and I would be against privatizing the city administrator.”

Five days after the budget hearing, Mayor Hayward vetoed the council’s amendment pertaining to the marketing funds. He said the money was needed to advertise the city to the outside world.
“My whole mantra’s been economic development and growing our city,” Hayward said.

The mayor did not veto the $120,000 transfer, but rather “took issue” with it. He said that he viewed the move as a hit on Asmar—“of course”—and that he needed more time to respond.

“I’m gonna basically look at all the facts on that before responding,” Hayward said, later adding, “there’s just some things hanging out there that I want to do my homework on.”

The mayor also noted that money could be moved from other areas of the budget back into professional services if necessary. He said that he didn’t feel all seven council members that voted for the transfer viewed it as a statement about his chief of staff, but thought that some council members may not have understood the implications of their vote.

“You know, when things happen that fast maybe people don’t digest it,” Hayward said.

The city council has until Sept. 24 to respond to the mayor’s veto of its amendment. It will take a majority of council—six votes—to overturn the veto.