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Sunday December 21st 2014

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Escambia’s RESTORE Rethink

Though it wasn’t on this morning’s agenda, the post-November incarnation of the Escambia County Commission—officially meeting for the first time—began discussing the “revamping” of the yet-to-be formed RESTORE Act advisory committee.

“I have some real reservations with the current structure, the way that committee is set up,” said Commissioner Grover Robinson.

Over the last few months, the commission has mapped out a system  to better determine how to spend Escambia’s unknown share of the RESTORE Act money stemming from Clean Water Act fines collected from BP in relation to the 2010 oil spill. All five commissioners appeared open to reassessing the specifics of the process, particularly the advisory committee, but differed on their individual rationale.

Robinson expressed a desire to expand the seven-member committee—“we need more eyeballs on this”—and said he thought the committee should focus more on public input and vision, less on specific projects.

“What do we want to be with this money,” he asked. “What do we want this money to do for Escambia County? These are the kind of questions we need to ask.”

Former commission chairman Wilson Robertson said he disagreed—“don’t give me a concept, give me some projects”—and said the advisory committee should be looking at specific projects—“like an interchange at Beulah”—which would generate jobs in the area.

“It ain’t about concept or future,” he said. “It’s about projects, spending, putting the money out there.”

Both of the newly seated commissioners—Steven Barry in District 5 and Lumon May in District 3—expressed a desire to be more involved in the process. The commission began taking on the RESTORE process prior to the new commissioners coming on board.

“I don’t think I feel comfortable inheriting structure of a committee that I didn’t have a vote on,” May said.

Newly hired County Administrator George Touart said that the county itself had a list of projects ready to go—“just our staff has come up with a billion dollars worth of projects”—and stressed that RESTORE was “a one-time shot” and that commissioners would be making the big decisions regardless of how an advisory committee played out.

“You’ve got one shot, one shot with this money,” Touart told the commission, later adding, “the only people who are going to be remembered for this—good or bad—is the five of you.”

Touart also suggested lowering a previously set $500-million floor for prospective projects and said the county should look to maximize the money by seeking matching funds from the state where applicable. He noted that the Beulah interchange project would be a good candidate.

“It’s the gate—as Vince Whibbs use to say—the western gate to the sunshine state,” Touart said.

After a half-hour discussion, Commission Chairman Gene Valentino wrapped it up and slated the subject for the Dec. 11 Committee of the Whole meeting.

“At least it opens the door for a very granular discussion,” the chairman said.