Pensacola, Florida
Sunday December 17th 2017

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County Moves Forward

By Rick Outzen

Escambia County Commissioner Steven Barry easily won re-election in 2016 with 68 percent of the vote. He discussed with Inweekly the county’s accomplishments and issues of 2016 and what lies ahead for 2017.

“I’m glad that we were finally able to act on a decision related to the jail property,” said Barry, who represents District 5. “One thing exciting about the beginning of the year is to really make some tangible progress in 2017 on the rebuild of that, so I’m excited about that.”

In July, the Board of County Commissioners (BCC) voted to buy the McDonald Shopping Center at the corner of Fairfield Drive and Pace Boulevard for $4.5 million. Barry admitted the site has some challenges because it’s only 14.65 acres.

“It’s going to mean going up, but I’m continued to be told that the going up will only be for the business and the housing, not as a parking garage, so I do think that we’re able to accomplish what we need to on that layout of property and without having to even consider a parking garage,” he said.

The County Commission and Mayor Ashton Hayward disagreed over the allocation of the Local Option Gas Tax. The BCC voted to use the state formula that based the allocation on transportation expenses in the Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports of the past five years. The county calculated that the allocation percentage for the city would be 5.45 percent – 70 percent reduction from the old 18.22 percent. The city gas tax share dropped from $1.55 million to $463,600.

To make up the difference, the BCC offered an interlocal agreement for additional gas tax dollars if the city completed its street-paving plan for West Pensacola as submitted to the BCC. Mayor Hayward chose to appeal the allocation to the Florida Cabinet. No decision had been made on the appeal as of the end of the year.

“I thought we really had a good proposal,” said Barry. “It sounded like something that my colleague from District Three (Commissioner Lumon May) was good with, but then that’s not necessarily the proposal that came back to us. That’s unfortunate, but I’m confident that we’ll work it out if we can have quarterly meetings with the mayor’s office/city council.”

A joint meeting of the Escambia Board of County Commissioners and Pensacola City Council has been scheduled for late January. Commissioner Barry believes there is value in holding such meetings. He hopes to resolve the local option gas tax issue at the January meeting.

“In a broader picture, I think that we can really look forward to a heavier line of communication hopefully between the mayor’s office, city council, and our board with the meeting in January,” said Barry. “The local option gas tax is certainly going to be one of the items that I think that we discuss. I’m hopeful that we can come to a fair and an equitable solution for everybody.”

He would like to see county-city meetings held on quarterly basis. The January agenda is lengthy.

“They’re all important, they all involve a municipal footprint as well as the county footprint,” he said. “If we can have quarterly meetings with the mayor’s office/city council, I think there’d be a lot of value in that for the taxpayers that we both serve.”

Commissioner Barry believes the board’s relationship with the Emerald Coast Utility Authority has improved over the past 24 months since the election of Commissioner Doug Underhill. He would like to have joint meetings with the ECUA board, too.

“The relationship with ECUA, while hopefully, it was getting better before that, has certainly been better since, and I think that there would be value in us having joint meetings with ECUA on a semi-regular basis,” he said. “We have a number of large capital projects that we’re working together on, and I just don’t get enough of an opportunity to really hear what some of my colleagues over there have to say about it.”

He believes that communicating solely through staff can lead to misunderstandings.

“You fear what you don’t know, and if there’s any hesitancy or even maybe critical comments/thoughts of any of our bodies that we’re trying to work, I would think that the majority of that’s going to come from them just not knowing us or knowing exactly what we say,” said Commissioner Barry.

He said that he has had several instances when he needed to clear up misunderstandings with the ECUA Board member Dr. Larry Walker.

“He’s had a couple of instances when he has called me over the last years and say, ‘I heard that y’all said this’ or ‘I heard you said this’ and it’s like, ‘Well, no. You can go back and run the stream off the computer. That’s not what I said nor is it what the board said, and it’s certainly not our intent,’” said Barry.  More joint meetings would help develop more camaraderie between boards, according to the commissioner.

In November, the BCC reversed its decision to remove the cash lanes at the Pensacola Beach toll booths after the citizens protested the move to automate the process. The board voted to seek more public input before changing the toll booths. Commissioner Barry said he had to eat some ‘humble pie’ on the initial decision to automate.

“I thought Commissioner (Grover) Robinson had had more conversations, not based on what he said but basically just my assumption which was incorrect. I’m certainly fine with where our board landed,” he told Inweekly.

Commissioner Barry understands how fragile public trust can be.  He said, “I think that our board has made a lot of headway towards regaining it. To some degree, you must regain public trust before you build it and I feel like we’ve done that. There’s been a lot of stability on the board and at the administrator’s position, which is a good thing.”

He said, “I think that stability has regained some trust and confidence, and all of us to a person want all of our actions to move forward building that.”