Pensacola, Florida
Saturday December 20th 2014

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Outtakes—Emerald Empire

The Emerald Coast Utility Authority is the most secretive local government agency in Northwest Florida.

Unlike the Pensacola City Council, Escambia County School Board and Escambia County Commission, its meetings aren’t televised. The Pensacola City Council sends out a link to its meeting agendas. ECUA does not.

The county commission and city council meet at night so the public can easily attend. The elected ECUA board meets at 2 p.m. in a hard-to-find room at Ellyson Industrial Park.

ECUA’s original name was Escambia County Utility Authority. It changed its name over a decade ago because it had dreams of being a regional utility that expanded outside of the county. That was derailed when the utility tried selling to Gulf Breeze brown water in the 2000s. The city bought a filter and then sued ECUA to be reimbursed for the cost. Eventually Gulf Breeze led the effort to create its own regional water supply for all the water utilities in south Santa Rosa County.

And that is pretty much how it has been with ECUA over the years. Those outside the agency have been the ones who have shed light on the problems at the utility.

Last decade, attorney Mike Papantonio revealed ECUA may have used contaminated wells to supply drinking water to its customers, which led to a $70-million settlement with ConocoPhillips.

When the utility relocated and demolished its Main Street Sewage Treatment plant, they bragged about finishing the largest public works project in the county’s history on time and under budget. Then the federal government released its audit of the $149.2 million grant it gave ECUA for the project. We learned ECUA only spent $1.09 million of the grant with minority-owned contractors and only $4.9 million with women-owned businesses—far below the grant requirements.

Since June 2012, the utility has been operating under a DEP consent order. The state wants the ECUA to address issues with its infrastructure. We are now getting nearly weekly announcements of sewage leaks throughout the system.

What has all this secrecy gotten us? Some very well-paid employees. The executive director, Stephen Sorrell, is the highest paid local government employee in the entire county—$181,916. He is paid more than any elected official in the county. In total, the utility has 15 employees making more than $90,000 a year.

There is a move to consolidate the “Emerald Empire” into the Escambia County government. It’s a discussion worth having.