City Airport, Fire Budgets Heat Up Workshop

city budget workshopSome of the meatier moments on the first day of the city of Pensacola’s budget workshop came during discussions regarding the budgets of the Pensacola International Airport and the Pensacola Fire Department. City council heard from the airport director, who recommended cutting three captain positions within the fire department, as well as firefighters, who painted such an action as a public safety risk.

During the airport budget presentation, Director Gregory Donovan told council that he planned to cut costs at the airport by reducing contractual services with the fire department. He said his recommendation to Mayor Ashton Hayward is to eliminate three captain positions at Station 7, located near the airport; two of these positions are currently unfilled, while the third is retiring out soon.

“So, no one would lose their job,” Donovan said.

As Donovan explained to council that the airport, which contracts for service with the fire department, could make do without the captains—that the issue had been discussed previously, but turned “political” and “emotional”—about a dozen city firefighters listened in the public gallery. They would later tell council members that they “vehemently” disagreed with such a direction.

“It has nothing to do with their bravery, or professionalism, or their ability to perform the task,” Donovan explained, “but we have had more than is necessary, we have been proactive for a long time.”

The airport director said it was “important that this not be mischaracterized, particularly at a point of negotiations, that this is unsafe.” During the fire department’s budget presentation, council would hear that cutting the positions would be a “burden” and present safety and chain of command issues.

Donovan said the reductions were necessary, but he encountered some amount of pushback from council members. Councilman Andy Terhaar suggested a compromise be sought, while Councilman Charles Bare said that “public safety is the number one thing we do in this city, and if we don’t even have that, we don’t need to have a city.”

“Doing nothing is not an option for us from a fiscal standpoint,” Donovan told council.

“Yeah,” replied Councilman Gerald Wingate, “but from a public safety standpoint it may be better to have this.”

Also during yesterday’s budget workshop, council heard from Pensacola Energy Director Don Suarez. The city’s natural gas company provides city coffers with $8 million annually—City CFO Dick Barker had earlier noted that “this city would look quite a bit different without that $8 million, or property taxes would be higher.”

Suarez noted that warmer winters in recent years had taken a toll on the company’s bottom line, but also projected brighter days on the horizon. He referenced the “shale gas revolution” and said he expected compressed natural gas (CNG) for vehicles to become an increasing part of the company’s revenue stream.

The director also said that Pensacola Energy was eyeing expansion opportunities. He pointed towards growth at the University of West Florida, “some significant projects popping up on Perdido Key” and also developments in the north of Escambia County, in the Beulah area.

“The county, I believe, would like to create an industrial park in that area and we certainly want to serve that,” Suarez said.

Some council members expressed concern about the amount of money the city received from Pensacola Energy. While the company is due to transfer 15 percent of revenues to the city, the transfers have been larger in recent years in order to meet the $8 million threshold; Councilman Bare noted that this year’s true 15 percent transfer would amount to $6.25 million.

Council President P.C. Wu conceded the concerns— “it’s the golden goose, and you’re afraid of killing the golden goose”—but said the city needed the funds nonetheless.

The council continues its budget workshop today at 9 a.m. at Pensacola City Hall. Proceedings will be conducted somewhat differently, as President Wu decided yesterday to divvy up today’s agenda among the council members; each member will be sitting in the president’s seat and overseeing a particular city budget presentation.

Councilman Brian Spencer will be handling the Planning/CRA budget; Councilman Wingate has been assigned Public Works and Facilities, Transportation, Stormwater; Councilman Terhaar will oversee the budget presentation from Neighborhood Services, Roger Scott Tennis Center, Golf Course, Youth and Athletic Programs; Councilman Larry B. Johnson is handling Housing; Councilman Bare has Technology Resources; Councilwoman Megan Pratt was assigned Penny for Progress; and Councilwoman Sherri Myers will oversee open forum.