More taxes could be on the horizon for Escambia County citizens. City of Pensacola and Escambia County officials faced with the challenge of how to fund the West Florida Public Library system are eyeing a Municipal Service Taxing Unit (MSTU).
“We still have a lot of homework to do on it,” City Administrator Bill Reynolds told the Pensacola City Council during a special meeting to discuss library funding and operation.
Local library funding has been hotly debated this budget cycle. Escambia County threw it on the table early on when looking to cover its budget shortfall. The county eventually reduced the amount of money it contributed to the library system, which it funds jointly with the city.
The city of Pensacola, which manages the system, responded by reducing hours at the libraries, most dramatically at branches in the county. That action upset the county commissioners, who then further reduced funding and attempted to redirect its monies toward restoring hours at the county branches.
The issue was a contentious one. Terse letters were exchanged. Words like “extortion” were used.
“I’d really like to get away from that and see if we can move forward,” Reynolds told the council.
The administrator relayed a meeting he and Mayor Ashton Hayward had taken with incoming county commission chairman Gene Valentino. The city had found a $355,000 band-aid to restore hours of operation and the officials discussed the local governments levying a MSTU to fund the entire system, with the county—“the organization that has the most skin in the game, if you will”—taking over operations.
“There seems to be a lot of agreement that this was a workable solution,” Reynolds said.
A few days later, Valentino told the Independent News that the plan was “another example of functional consolidation.” A “game-changer” and “real team-spirited approach.”
“We’re biting off a big one here, but we can do it,” he said. “We can do it if we just work together.”
The Appeal and the Bill
Joining the list of losers on Election Day: Occupy Pensacola. That’s the day Judge Roger Vinson handed the local protest group a defeat in its lawsuit against the city of Pensacola.
“Despite the voluminous filings by both parties in this case,” Vinson wrote in his ruling for the United States District Court, Northern District of Florida, “the dispositive question is simple and straightforward: Can the plaintiffs pitch tents and ‘occupy’ a centrally-located piece of public land for an indefinite period of time?”
He ruled that they could not. He cited “a several decades-old ordinance that expressly prevents them from doing so.”
The Occupy suit contended that the protesters were exercising their First Amendment rights by ‘occupying’ the lawn. The tents, they argued, were essential to the act.
A few days later, the Occupy attorney, attorney Alistair McKenzie, released a statement.
“Today, the City of Pensacola informed my clients, regular citizens of Pensacola, who have merely sought to have their constitutional rights vindicated in court, that unless they drop the appeal filed in the 11th Circuit in the Occupy case, that Mayor Hayward will be seeking attorney’s fees and costs against them,” the statement read.
City Spokesman Derek Cosson told the Independent News that city had made a decision to recoup legal fees regardless of Occupy’s decision to appeal. He estimated the fees at $100,000.
“The taxpayers have spent quite a large amount of money defending this case,” Cosson said. “We’re gonna move for recovery of attorney fees one way or the other.”
Let the Party Extend
Palafox Street will be closed to vehicles until midnight for the Gallery Night on Nov. 16. Partiers can thank Councilman Brian Spencer for offering up $2,500 of his discretionary money—each council member has $10,000 in budget to use for their pet projects—to pay for the extended hours.
The October Gallery Night ended at 9 p.m. because the Downtown Improvement Board didn’t find sponsors to foot the bill for insurance and security for the additional three hours.
Mayor Ashton Hayward took issue that evening with the way off-duty police working for the DIB were clearing pedestrians from Palafox Street in order to reopen it to vehicular traffic. He thought their tactics were heavy handed—comparing the scene to “Beirut.”
The local police union claimed the mayor used his position to intimidate officers and requested an investigation from the Pensacola City Council. Then Hayward issued a statement stressing the importance of standardizing Gallery Night schedules.
At its Nov. 6 meeting, the DIB discussed the future of Gallery Night. Perhaps Gallery Night should be split into two different events: one resembling the calmer, art-centered Gallery Night’s of yore, and an alternately scheduled late-night party. Or maybe bollards should be installed and Palafox shut down every Friday and Saturday night.
Spencer suggested that Gallery Night had become “so big and so expected” that it had grown beyond the scope of the DIB—“our shoulders are only so broad”—and needed to be rethought.
“I think it has matured to become not just a downtown event but a community event,” he said. Spencer then told the group that he would use his discretionary fund to cover the additional cost.
Looking to the future, the DIB decided to have its Special Events Committee approach city officials about possibly contributing to the pot. Spencer said he thought that the city might be more receptive now.
“I think recent publicity has provided,” he said, “much more attention and motivation on the part of the city.”
City Administrator Bill Reynolds was also in attendance at the DIB meeting. He wasn’t particularly keen on the city contributing to the funding of Gallery Night.
“Our role is to permit it and to provide the services to make it happen,” Reynolds said.
“If we sponsor or do something for one, it’s very difficult for the city to say, ‘No, no, no, you’re a different special event.’”