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Tuesday July 22nd 2014

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Dancing on a Pipeline

Who Will Provide Natural Gas to Pensacola Beach?
By Jeremy Morrison

Pensacola City Attorney Jim Messer rattled off rapid-fire Spanish, before clarifying the translation: Danza de la Muerte, or Dance of Death.

“It’s an exhaustive process,” he explained.

The big dance Messer is referring to involves Pensacola, Pensacola Beach, Gulf Breeze and Escambia County. Nobody gets a carnation, but at the end of the night there’s a natural gas pipeline to be had.

Here’s the lay of the dance floor: Escambia County granted Pensacola, via Energy Services of Pensacola (ESP), natural gas-rights to the entire county. Gulf Breeze, meanwhile, has set about laying pipes that will enable it to provide natural gas
to Pensacola Beach, which is in Escambia County.

“In simplest layman’s terms,” Messer told the Pensacola City Council Jan. 9, “it would seem that the city of Pensacola has been snookered.”

Gulf Breeze City Manager Buz Eddy doesn’t see a problem on the dance floor.

“It’s under way right now,” Eddy said, predicting a summer finish for the project. “We’re gonna take a pipeline from Gulf Breeze, put it under the sound and come up on the island.”

That plan just makes sense, Eddy explained. It will enable the beach customers currently using propane to switch to natural gas.

“During Hurricane Ivan we had a lot of the propane tanks wash up over here in Gulf Breeze,” he said.

Gulf Breeze got the go-ahead last summer to start work on the project from the Santa Rosa Island Authority, which oversees Pensacola Beach. Now, Eddy said, it’s just a matter of who gets the franchise fees.

“Do we owe it to Pensacola or do we owe it to Escambia County?” he wondered.

Randy Oliver, Escambia County’s administrator, said the county was unaware of Gulf Breeze’s endeavors.

“The City of Gulf Breeze undertook this project without the knowledge or approval of Escambia County,” Oliver said in a county statement.

The statement goes on to explain the county’s position: “Escambia County has no interest in whether Gulf Breeze or Pensacola provides natural gas service to the Beach. Escambia County is committed to seeing Beach residents receive the best possible service at the lowest possible cost regardless of who provides the service. Escambia County will collect the same franchise fee collected in all other areas of the County in exchange for use of the right-of-way, regardless of the service provider.”

Oliver said that the county will take up the issue during its Jan. 12 meeting. Staff will apparently “recommend to the Board of County Commissioners that a nonexclusive franchise be offered to the City of Gulf Breeze until and unless the City of Pensacola provides services. This will permit the businesses and citizens in the core of Pensacola Beach to receive this valuable service and protect the City of Pensacola’s franchise rights.”

But Messer’s in no mood to entertain alternative routes. He’s ready to dance.

“I just say, sue ’em,” Pensacola’s attorney suggested.

But it’s not that easy. Governmental entities can’t simply sue one another. First, there’s the dance. To that end, Messer introduced a resolution to city council members. The resolution will be taken up during the council’s Jan. 12 meeting. If city council members choose to do so, the resolution will lead into mediation—the dance—and possibly to a courtroom.

It’s almost romantic. A Municipal Waltz. Or, maybe a Bureaucratic Tango.

“It’s like one of those old-fashioned dances, where you’ve got to be introduced and bow,” Messer said. “Before you touch the girl, you’ve got to do a thousand different things.”