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Saturday October 25th 2014

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Wham, Bam, Escambia

Convergence of Issues Trigger County Freakout
By Jeremy Morrison

The Escambia County political realm appears to be limping toward a desperate implosion. Maybe it’s the pressure of promised RESTORE money, or maybe the state’s Medicaid-offload rattled nerves in a panic. Perhaps it’s Commissioner Kevin White’s freewheeling rampage as he heads for the exit or the pockets of discontent over the county’s 2013 budget.

Whatever it is, County Administrator Randy Oliver may not have to worry about it too much longer. He’s got a public evaluation during the commission’s Oct. 18 meeting and White recently led the charge in reserving the right to take a termination vote following the administrator’s review.

The commission framed the move as “housekeeping.” Just in case.

But Oliver’s contract is but one blistering blip on Escambia’s political radar as of late. Whatever the administrator’s fate, county officials must still address budgetary sore spots.

Both the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office and the West Florida Public Library System are looking for money. And both know the county commission has been able to find hundreds of thousands of dollars recently for revamping its media equipment and luring foreign business delegations to the area.

And then there’s the disagreement with the city of Pensacola. Where words like “extortion” are being used.

‘Extortion’ in the Library

During a recent Committee of the Whole meeting of the Escambia County Commission, officials worked themselves up into a frenzy. Commissioner Gene Valentino finally burst at the seams.

“Let’s seize control of the library system,” Valentino exclaimed.

It was a pretty climactic moment in a discussion that saw commissioners venting frustration about recent management decisions made by the city regarding the library system, as well past bones of contention.

Under an interlocal agreement, the library system is managed by the city of Pensacola, while Escambia County provides 70 percent of its funding needs. Recently, the county commission decided to cut its contribution by $165,000. In response, Pensacola made cuts at the libraries—in hours, as well as book and subscription orders—impacting branches in the county the greatest.

The county administrator sent a letter to city officials. Oliver requested the city ease off on the cuts, and suggested failure to do so may require the county to withhold additional funding in order to supplement the cuts made to county branches.

Pensacola City Administrator Bill Reynolds wrote a letter back, and later in the media equated the county’s position to “extortion.” He defended the city’s recent cuts, and argued that the county had ducked their full funding obligation for years.

“It is not fair to expect that city taxpayers should continually subsidize county users to the system,” Reynolds wrote. “What I find even more troubling is the attempt by some to make this a ‘city issue’ based upon the efforts we have had to implement to ensure we remain within the budget.”

By the time of the commission’s COW meeting, the Pensacola News Journal had published an editorial entitled “Discussion, Not Extortion Needed.” Commissioner White was steamed. Slightly more so than usual even.

“I call horse crap on that,” he said of the city’s “extortion” characterization.

Commissioner Grover Robinson suggested the board meet with city officials to discuss the matter.

“I’d live to sit down with them,” he said. “I’d love for the county administrator to arrange a sit-down with the mayor and the city council.”

No one else on the commission was game for meeting with the city. White said it would be “a waste of time.”

“They’re the extortionists,” White growled.

Commission Chairman Wilson Robertson complained that the county had been “villainized” by the city. He linked the library funding to the city’s decision to pull its share of funding of the Escambia County Area Transit system years ago. The chairman suggested the county retroactively bill the city for its portion of public transit funding—with the commissioners pegging that amount at around $5.5 million—and subtract its portion of the library funding from that bill.

“That’s my starting point,” the chairman said.

Valentino connected the library disagreement to another row between the county and the city earlier this year. He said he preferred not to meet with the same officials who almost sued the county when Gulf Breeze began providing Pensacola Beach with natural gas in what the city viewed as a violation of an existing service agreement.

Commissioner Marie Young urged civility.

“I think we need to find a way to solve the problem,” she said, “rather than vengeance.”

The commissioners then discussed funding options for a county-run system: library card fees, or a dedicated tax. Robinson requested that the county attorney draft a motion for the Oct. 18 meeting that would offer the commission an opportunity to exit the current interlocal agreement with the city.

‘Hardball’ with the Sheriff

Another camp of discontent following the recent finalization of the county’s 2013 budget is the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office. The office contends that the county cut its budget more than previously agreed to.

“We got blindsided,” said Sheriff David Morgan recently. “We were totally unprepared.”

Morgan said the sheriff’s office was cut more than $350,000 over what he had agreed to. The county stands by its budget.

“Recognizing the importance of law enforcement, the county only decreased the law enforcement budget by 1.5 percent from the prior year,” Oliver said in a statement.

During its recent COW meeting, Commissioner Robinson told his fellow officials that he planned to bring up the issue of the sheriff’s office funding again. He said he had spoken with Escambia County Chief Deputy Larry Aiken following the budget hearing and felt that the commission could search for some funds.

“The interpretation that he kind of gave me was that they needed $120,000,” Robinson said, adding that he was now hearing the number $220,000. “I keep hearing two different things.”

Other commissioners weren’t as sure the funds could be found.

“I keep hearing ‘the sheriff, the sheriff,’ but I thought we had finished the sheriff,” said Commissioner Young.

The sheriff, meanwhile, isn’t expecting anything less than his full request.

“I expect the county to fund all of it,” Morgan said. “Sorry, this is hardball.”