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The Buzz 4/19/12

King In Court On April 11, Hugh King, a non-party-affiliated candidate for Escambia County Commission, District 3, asked Circuit Court Judge Thomas Santurri to grant a restraining order against Lumon May, a Democratic candidate for the same post. Judge Santurri dismissed the request finding that King’s claims did not meet the state statutes.

On Friday, April 6, King was arrested for battery against May that stemmed from a confrontation on March 29 at the end of a forum to help children and families cope with the shooting of Trayvon Martin.

At the April 11 hearing in Judge Santurri’s courtroom, King based his request on four points:

1. He felt threatened because May had filed charges against him,
2. The May family has a violent past and they impersonate each other,
3. May stalked him at the event and actually was the one who hit him, and
4. May’s claim that King had pulled a gun on May in a hallway of Zion Hope had put him at risk because now whenever King pulls his hand of his pocket someone might shoot him under the “Stand Your Ground” law.

Filing charges is not a violent act. Judge Santurri told King that even if May had struck him that was not enough to grant a restraining order. King has to prove that there were two separate violent acts committed against him. The judge also told King that both he and May are political candidates. They both have the right to work the room, so May talking to the same people at Zion Hope with whom King spoke was not stalking.

May’s attorney, Eric Stevenson, objected to King’s statements about the Mays impersonating each other, so the courtroom never got to hear what King meant by that comment.

On the “Stand Your Ground” assertion, the judge made no comment, other than to tell King that when the courtroom security told King to take his hands out of his pockets, they were following court policy.  Everyone, even the attorneys, received the same instructions. Judge Santurri assured King that he was not being singled out.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) met April 11 with local political and community leaders, spending most of the meeting discussing the RESTORE Act. He said that the effort to keep 80 percent of fine money resulting from BP’s 2010 oil spill in the Gulf Coast region had passed the Senate and is currently hung up in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“As you can see, before we came home for Easter we could not get the House to move,” Nelson said. “If we go amending the RESTORE Act very much down in the House, all kinds of bad things could happen.”

Sen. Nelson also addressed recent efforts to open up the eastern portion of the Gulf of Mexico to energy exploration. He said he supports the ban currently in place for Florida’s portion of the gulf. He told the leaders that the ban is necessary for military training purposes. Sen. Nelson said that would work to ensure the Florida portion remains off limits to drilling.

“It doesn’t make any difference, there’s not any oil out there,” he said, contending that most of the sizable reserves in the Gulf are farther west.

Currently, Nelson told the local crowd, there are 32 million acres leased for drilling in the Gulf. Only six million of those acres are currently being tapped.

“So, why is there this relentless effort to keep pushing in the Gulf under the guise of ‘drill baby drill?’” he asked rhetorically, adding that oil companies push for more open area because the increased inventory would increase a given company’s worth.

The senator said that he is currently involved in an effort to require energy companies to actually drill on the areas it has leased.

“We’re going to try to change the law where it says, ‘you either use it, or lose it,’” he said.

Senator Nelson’s Pensacola pow-wow was held in the administrative boardroom on the campus of Pensacola State College. The senator took a moment to recognize Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson’s instrumental role in organizing a group of Gulf Coast officials to lobby for the RESTORE Act. He said he had known the Robinson family for many years and appreciated the commissioner’s support on RESTORE.

“I always like to talk about Grover,” Nelson said, “because I knew him when he was just a little-shaver.”

Making County Sausage Faced with a nearly $10 million budget shortfall, on April 12 Escambia County commissioners considered pulling the county’s $3.7 million annual funding from the West Florida Library System. A few hundred library supporters dressed in red attended the commissioners’ morning workshop and persuaded them to search out the cuts elsewhere.

“Folks, y’all are getting to see us make some sausage here today,” Commission Chairman Wilson Robertson told the gallery as the board began exploring other possibilities to make up some of the budget shortfall.

A recently enacted state law requires counties to pay more than a decade’s worth of Medicaid costs that the state asserts the counties owe. Escambia County Administrator Randy Oliver had identified cutting the county’s funding of the library system as one possible remedy.

Escambia County’s contribution comprises more than 70 percent of the library system’s total funding. The remainder—under $2 million—is made up by the city of Pensacola.

“Folks, this is a dilemma we had no asking for,” Wilson told the crowd. “It hit us all of the sudden.”

All five commissioners said they had received overwhelming feedback from the public on the issue of library funding. Wilson said that Oliver should not have stated that the commissioners would be pulling the funding.

“I think we jumped the gun, personally,” Wilson said. “I’m not trying to throw Randy under the bus.”

Just as the red-wearing audience was upset with the commission, the commissioners were equally angered by their own position in the equation.

Commissioner Kevin White said that state officials had placed local governments in a difficult position—“like Solomon deciding how to split the baby.”

“I find it amazing how these jackasses from Tallahassee can use local governments to balance their budgets,” White said. “It just blows my mind.”

White said that cutting library funding or any other cuts would only be “Band-aid” fixes. He said the county had already made cuts and that it was now time to increase revenue by raising the millage rate by a half mil.  White mentioned that he was not seeking reelection and thus could make such a suggestion.

“Any other vote would be cutting this board’s throat,” the commissioner said. “You’ll cut your own throat with the next budget.”

Commissioner Marie Young said that she was “not afraid to bite the bullet” and agreed with White’s millage proposal. This evoked an audible applause from the over-flow crowd that watched the proceedings on a television in the lobby.

“I thought I’d get a bigger clap than that,” Young said, prompting the entire gallery to give her an ovation.

A mil is equal to $1 for every $1000 of a property’s taxable value. The increase would only affect homeowners.

“Five-tenths of a mil would solve all of our problems,” Young told her fellow commissioners. “What’s the big deal about raising taxes? That’s not a big deal—ohhh, somebody’s going to take that and run with it.”

Commissioner Young wanted to know what a .5 increase in the millage rate would mean for homeowners.

“About $4 a month,” White told her.

“For about 40 percent, it’d be zero,” Wilson added, accounting for the fact that homestead exemptions would cancel out some properties.

Young urged the board to simply vote to increase the millage rate and be done with it. The millage could also be increased by putting it up to the voters via a referendum.

“Taxes is like death—you know the rest it: it’s going to be here for the rest of our lives,” she told them. “You don’t want to call it a tax? Let’s call it a millage increase, make it sound pretty.”

Noting a bit of irony, Commissioner Grover Robinson said that since hitting counties with the Medicaid bill, the state of Florida is now able to report a budget surplus of $72 million.

“That $72 million is exactly equal to the amount that is being asked to be paid back,” he said.

Robinson urged the board to join with other counties and fight the state on the Medicaid issue. He also asked people in the audience to contact their representatives and let them know how they felt.

“If this board acts alone that will send no message to Tallahassee and make things worse the following year,” Robinson said.

Commissioner Gene Valentino said the county should not be looking at the libraries for cuts, but rather at various existing programs. He also took the opportunity to lobby for a gas tax to pay for public transportation and thereby free up funds currently used for that purpose.

“I don’t appreciate being blind-sided by a half-baked solution to balance the budget on the backs of the library,” Valentino said. He argued that county staff should better “scrub” the overall budget in an effort to find areas to save— “if they’re not going to micromanage, I will.”

White responded that he had “scrubbed” the budget himself and found nowhere else to cut. He told his fellow commissioners that they could do the “political two-step” but they would eventually need to increase revenue. He requested that if they did not do so, that the board members themselves be forced to decide which county employees will lose their jobs.

“Where I can see this going?” White said. “People are going on the street.”

Oliver told the board that the library option should not be dismissed. He said budget discussions could circle back around to the contentious territory.

“I’m going to be candid with you,” he said. “You can’t responsibly take anything off the table.”

Towards the end of the discussion, West Florida Library System Board of Trustees President Bette Hooton needed some clarification. She wasn’t sure if the library system was in the clear.

“I’ve got one question,” Hooton asked the board. “Have I got something to take to my people?”

After commissioners exchanged glances among themselves, Chairman Robertson told her that they had not “ever dreamed of cutting funding” to the library.

“We are not going to do a massive cut,” the chairman assured her.