The Escambia County Commission started down a long road this morning. It is a road potentially paved with many millions in treasure.
When the federal government arrives at a dollar amount for Clean Water Act fines levied against BP, the RESTORE Act has guaranteed a good chunk of that money will come to the Gulf Coast. During their morning work session, commissioners were presented with a possible road map as to how to spend Escambia’s share.
“This is gonna take a year or so before we ever decide how to spend this money,” County Administrator Randy Oliver told the commission today.
The administrator recommended that the commission form an advisory committee—consisting of either seven or nine members—that would help evaluate potential uses for the funds. He suggested the body be made up of experts in the respective fields of finance, business, transportation, planning, and government, as well a representative from the city of Pensacola and from the environmental community.
Commissioners were split on whether the committee should consist of seven or nine members. They agreed that planning aspects could probably be handled by county staff.
“I’m not even sure the city needs a seat at the table,” said Commissioner Kevin White.
Oliver explained that Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward had expressed an interest in sitting on the committee. The Pensacola City Council has also appointed Councilwoman Maren DeWeese to represent the city during the RESTORE process.
Commissioners wondered weather the city representation would conflict with the criteria Oliver was describing. The administrator said the committee should not include elected officials or people holding positions with entities requesting funds; he noted that he hadn’t meant to apply that particular criteria to the city.
“Would the mayor even qualify?” Commissioner Marie Young asked.
“Wouldn’t that be a conflict?” added Robertson. “You’re not going to have a county commissioner serving. I don’t think the mayor or city council that’s going to have projects in the hopper [should serve].”
After White again noted current tension between Mayor Hayward and the council—“he doesn’t even show up at city council meetings”—the board decided it would be best to give Pensacola a seat and let the city camps hash out specifics amongst themselves.
Robertson also said he believed the coming RESTORE money to be intended for economic development projects, as opposed to environmental restoration work.
“This pot of money we’re talking about, as I understand, is for economic development projects,” the chairman said.
Commissioner Grover Robinson—who has been heavily involved in the oil spill-aftermath logistics—clarified that while there was the possibility of other funds available for environmental purposes, the RESTORE money is also meant to address environmental concerns.
“We do have NRDA. We hope that things will work out in NRDA, but we don’t have any control over it,” Robinson said. “This pot is clearly for environmental and economic.”
Oliver told the commissioners to expect a presentation from its yet-to-be-formed advisory committee next summer. The committee will be appointed by January—with the process suspended until incoming commission members are on board to participate in the process—and will report to the county in July.
“This is what I call a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Oliver told the commissioners, stressing the importance of prioritizing potential projects. “They need to be game-changers.”