Pensacola, Florida
Wednesday September 17th 2014

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The Buzz 11/23/12

Passing the Gas (Tax) After a four hour public hearing, the Escambia County Commission voted to issue a four cent fuel tax in order to provide a dedicated funding source for the area’s mass transit system. It capped a conversation begun by commissioners a week earlier.

“Just shut up and vote,” said Commissioner Kevin White, prior to the approval of the Local Option Sales Tax.

The outgoing White was the lone dissenting vote on the gas tax. He noted that he had never voted for a tax increase, and then proceeded to continue that trend on the last day of his term.

Currently, Escambia County funds the Escambia County Area Transit with $3.2 million from the general fund. The gas tax—estimated to raise $4 million—will now be dedicated to fund the transit system.

The issue attracted a chamber full of citizens to the public hearing. More than 30 people spoke on the matter, split almost evenly for and against.

“Gas has went up, tires have went up, insurance has went up,” said Glenn Harris, asking the commission not to place another financial burden on citizens.

Mike Lowery, president of the ECAT employee union told the commission that he appreciated it taking on the issue. He said “everyday people just like you” depend on bus service and that perhaps the secure, reliable funding could allow that service to expand.

“It means that we’re moving in the right direction,” Lowery said after the hearing.

A representative from the county’s Mass Transit Advisory Committee attended the hearing to relay the group’s position. Alan McMillan called the gas tax a necessary “cornerstone” for a viable mass transit system.

While the tax found support among those who take advantage of the bus service as well as those who don’t—local businessman Lewis Bear was present to log his support—it also had a fair number of denouncers. During the public hearing, some citizens said they didn’t think it was right to ask drivers to shoulder the burden of funding a mass transit system; a distinction was drawn between bus riders and “productive members of society.”

“I don’t remember that when y’all ran for election that you ran on a platform of ‘Robin Hood,’” David Schwartz told the commissioners.

Commission Chairman Wilson Robertson said that the tax would not pose too great of a burden on individuals or businesses. He estimated that it would cost his business—which he said uses about 200 gallons of fuel per week—an estimated $416 annually.

“I’m not a socialistic person,” Robertson said. “I’m a conservative Republican, but I believe in helping the less fortunate and we need mass transit.”

Incoming chairman Commissioner Gene Valentino said that the gas tax and a more secure transit system would help bring more jobs to the area. He said business interests he had met with while promoting Escambia in Germany stressed the importance of amenities such as mass transit systems.

“If you expect me to bring jobs to this community, you’ve got to look the part and act the part—that’s what the world said to me,” Valentino said, adding that he would be pushing for help at the state level in creating a multi-county transit system which would theoretically make the four cent tax moot before it took effect in 2014.

After hours of comment, the commissioners held to their previously stated positions. They maintained that a dedicated source of funding was necessary, and directed staff to find a way to reduce the county’s ad valorem intake by $1.15 million to help offset the impact of the gas tax.

“This is a subject that has been discussed for many years,” said Commissioner Marie Young. “And it’s just getting worse.”

Young was unabashed about casting her vote for the gas tax on what was also her last day on the commission. When igniting the conversation a week earlier, she had told commissioners to consider the tax her “legacy.”

Outside the commission chambers following the hearing, Lowery said he was glad Young had an opportunity to vote on the issue. The District 3 commissioner has long championed a secure funding source for ECAT.

“She knows how important this is for the citizens in this community,” Lowery said.

Gallery Night Showdown Shutdown A couple of days after unanimously deciding to issue subpoenas for sworn statements, the Pensacola City Council walked away from the Gallery Night brew-ha-ha involving Mayor Ashton Hayward and the Fraternal Order of Police.

Councilman Larry Johnson told his fellow council members that pursuing the issue would not be in the city’s best interest—“I go back to the greater good”—and said the incident didn’t cast the city in a good light.

“I had one constituent say ‘Where are the giraffes and elephants,’” Johnson said.

During the Oct. 19 Gallery Night downtown, Mayor Hayward apparently was unaware that the streets were being reopened to vehicles at 9 p.m. and took issue with the way in which police officers were clearing pedestrians from the roadway. The next week, the FOP requested that the city council investigate the mayor on grounds that he misused his power and intimidated an officer.

In the following weeks, the mayor issued a statement addressing officer conduct and Gallery Night hours and other city representatives connected the FOP’s request with contract negotiations—currently at an impasse—with the police union. The FOP, meanwhile, claimed a pattern of disrespect and continued to press for an investigation.

On Nov. 13, the city council expressed frustration that Hayward—though meeting privately with council members—had not provided it with an account on the incident. The council decided to subpoena sworn statements from the involved parties, including the mayor.

After reconsidering—and following City Attorney Jim Messer’s glum forecast for the venture—the city council decided to scrap the subpoenas Nov. 15. That move passed on a 5-3 vote, with council persons Maren DeWeese, Sherri Myers and John Jerralds dissenting.

Settling the Unsettled BP agreed this month to pay $4.5 billion in penalties and plead guilty to criminal misconduct as a result of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. The U.S. government also indicted two senior BP supervisors on manslaughter charges and another company official with intentionally underestimating flow-rate estimates.

The Deepwater Horizon oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico exploded two years ago. The disaster killed 11 men and unleashed months of oil erupting from damaged equipment on the gulf floor. An estimated 5 million barrels were released in total, with sheen still routinely spotted at the site.

The $4.5 billion settlement includes $1.3 billion in fines, $2.4 billon that goes to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, $350 million to the National Academy of Sciences and about $500 million to the Securities and Exchange Commission, which accused BP of misleading investors with low flow-rate estimates. This settlement does not include the still-undetermined Clean Water Act penalties, which will be allocated via the RESTORE Act.

3% All Around County employees just got a pay increase. All of them.

The Escambia County Commission was poised to offer three percent cost-of-living increases to employees. When a troop of disgruntled Escambia County Sheriff officers showed up to a meeting Nov. 13, the generosity was extended to them—as well as employees working under the property appraiser, the tax collector and supervisor of elections. The outgoing Clerk of Court had already issued such increases. In total, the across-the-board increases add up to around $3.5 million.

“I was about to ask you, where do you get the money,” Commissioner Marie Young said upon hearing the figure.

“I was hoping a fire alarm would go off before you asked me that question,” answered county numbers cruncher Amy LaVoy. “In my opinion, the only way is to make cuts.”

The commission passed the increases on a 3-2 vote, with Young and Commissioner Grover Robinson dissenting.

“I can’t support anything at this point and time,” Robinson said, questioning the move’s fiscal sense. “It’s not a question of ‘Do our employees deserve raises?’ Absolutely.”

Commission Chairman Wilson Robertson noted that the county had not taken as big of a hit as expected earlier in the year as a result of the state’s Medicaid bill, and would also be saving general fund money due to new dedicated taxes to fund the libraries and mass transit system. Other commissioners suggested that reserves might need to be tapped in order to fulfill the cost-of-living increases.

The commissioners hinged the increases on the move being budget-neutral. County staff was tasked with the math.

“Really, this just gets the ball rolling,” Robertson said.