By Jeremy Morrison, Inweekly
City of Pensacola officials are exploring the concept of refinancing debt associated with the construction of Community Maritime Park in order to finance future downtown projects, and also looking into the potential for city employees to take advantage of community health clinics, similar to Escambia County employees.
These were among the items addressed during Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson’s weekly press conference June 3, as were issues like the coming land-swap deal with the YMCA and the continued fallout from Rep. Mike Hill’s remarks made last month in Pensacola City Hall.
Here’s the Deal
Soon, the city of Pensacola will be looking over the grand plans being delivered by the urban designers with SCAPE. The plans will aims to make the city’s downtown waterfront more walkable and connected, and also infuse the city’s core with a jolt of energy via two “catalytic” projects.
Whatever is in SCAPE’s plans, particularly the catalytic projects, will take money to make happen. With that in mind, Mayor Robinson said that the city is looking at refinancing the nearly $58 million in debt stemming from Maritime park’s construction.
“It has the potential to generate about $17 million for the city, that we could do some other projects,” Robinson said Monday. “SCAPE is coming forward with it’s projects and we really don’t have any other way to fund the public sector portion of those projects.”
The mayor said that about $3 million would be set aside to use for sidewalks downtown, with the rest being earmarked for whatever project the city thought most needed attention, with a focus on projects which could have a positive ripple effect for the area economically and developmentally.
Insofar as what the eventual catalytic projects may be that call for such funding, Mayor Robinson said he didn’t know what they might be, but suggested there may be a focus on Bruce Beach, on better-connecting that waterfront area. He also said improvements to Main Street — “to make it more pedestrian safe” — would be a consideration.
When Mayor Robinson took office he said he would be looking into the city’s health insurance plans and whether or not city employees would be better off taking advantage of community health clinics. Robinson is familiar with that arrangement as employees of Escambia County, where he previously served as a county commissioner, participate in such a plan.
“I think we had a little bit better benefit at the county and it was a little bit cheaper to the user,” Robinson said Monday.
The city’s exploration of this option kicks into an earnest gear this week with the arrival of Amy Lovoy, who will be stepping into the assistant finance administrator position. Lovoy previously worked for Escambia County, where she worked with Robinson on the county’s health clinic program.
“I worked diligently with Amy to put that employee clinic together at the county and I think it creates a good benefit and we’re trying to see how it might play with us,” the mayor said.
Robinson said that Lovoy would be evaluating the city’s current insurance costs and what the cost might be if it switched to the health clinics. He allowed that typically such a move works better the more employees an entity has — the county has around 1,000 employees, whereas the city has about 800 — but the mayor said he thought the numbers would work.
The mayor also said he felt that not only would the move be financially beneficial to the city, but also to individual employees.
“They typically go there easier, you manage it more effectively and they don’t end up waiting for a longer time to then find out they get sick or something else happens and it costs you more money down the line,” Robinson said.
Town Hall in Y-Country
The city’s next town hall event will be held June 12 in Pensacola City Councilman P.C. Wu’s District 1. Among the issues the mayor expects to come up: the city’s deal with the YMCA to take over the organization’s property off of Langley Avenue for the purpose of creating a soccer complex.
“I think that’s going to come up, obviously,” Robinson said, noting that the town hall would be held just before city council voted on the deal. “I’m sure we’ll have some of that.”
The potential deal has been somewhat a contentious issue, with residents near Hitzman Park, where the fields will be placed, along with the neighboring Y property, concerned about the increased traffic on Langley and the changes to the area in general.
The city’s deal with the Y would involve the construction of a three-field complex off of Langley, with the YMCA moving its operations — albeit a downsized version — to Summit Boulevard, at the Vickery Community Center.
Robinson said that is looking to stipulate as part of the deal, in a nod to concerned Scenic Heights residents, that the wooded area in Hitzman Park will remain untouched.
“I made a commitment to some of those neighbors that we would not intrude there,” he said. “I want to find a way we can do a deed restriction, some kind of policy that says we will not go into that wooded area that exist in Hitzman Park.”
The mayor also said that the soccer complex would only be used for local play, not as a tournament destination that might attract larger crowds.
“They’re a lot of places for out of town soccer tournaments to happen, we’re not looking to do out of town soccer tournaments,” Robinson said. “Those fields will be for our league play and for our players to use, they’re not going to be set up for us to have out of town stuff, that’s not what they’re there for.”
Food Truck Quandary
Recently, a new state law trickled down to impact local food trucks. The law, part of a new fire code, states that “temporary cooking operations” must be separated from buildings and parked cars and other food trucks by 10 feet.
“Our fire people did not set this rule in any way, we just obeyed the rule that came out,” the mayor said. “Again, the rules changed.”
In practice, this is severely limiting for a food truck.
“Clearly this exposed a challenge that we have,” Robinson said, suggesting that food trucks use available parking lots for their operations.
The mayor also invited food truck operators to Pensacola City Hall’s parking lot, where the city has encouraged such operations for a while now: “We’d love to have those food trucks here.”
Mayor Robinson’s Take on Mayor Lindsay’s Recusal
Recently Mayor Robinson brought aboard Heather Lindsay as an assistant city attorney. Lindsay — a high school friend of Robinson’s — also serves as the mayor of Milton.
When announcing Lindsay’s hiring, Mayor Robinson brushed aside questions about potential conflicts of interest that may arise, such as when Lindsay would be sitting on a regional transportation board and vying for state transportation funds.
Recently, however, Lindsay announced she’d be stepping down from the Florida-Alabama Transportation Planning Organization to avoid the appearance of any conflicts of interest. Mayor Robinson said Monday that he didn’t think the
“She needed to make that decision,” Mayor Robinson said Monday, adding that he didn’t think it was necessary. “My expectation was that when she sits on the TPO, she wasn’t representing her employer, she was representing the people she represents. So, I never had a problem with her representing the city of Milton.”
While the mayor said he thought the move was not necessary, he also described Lindsay’s decision as the “right decision.”
“She made the right decision,” Robinson said. “That’s why we hired her, to make good decisions, ethical decisions, and she’s proving she’s already doing that.”
City Public Information Officer Kaycee Lagarde added that the TPO issue specifically was something taken into consideration prior to Lindsay being hired.
“The TPO issue was something that they discussed prior to even hiring her, so it was on their radar, it’s not something that was a surprise to the city,” she said.
Bayview Within View
Mayor Robinson said Monday that work on the Bayview Senior Center will be completed by early 2020. He said he’d spoken to the contractor and optimistically allowed for an earlier completion.
“He told me there’s a good chance we could still get in there before Christmas, so I”m gonna say we’re shooting for Christmas,” Robinson said.
Work on the center includes making restrooms ADA compliant, as well as new carpet and the addressing of mold issues. The city has been partnering with Escambia County to offer some of the services provided at the senior center at the Brownsville Community Center. Now, however, those services will be moved over to the city’s community centers at Gull Point and Sander’s Beach.
“We know all of our seniors are looking forward to getting back Bayview,” the mayor said.
More on Mike Hill
A couple of weeks ago state legislator Mike Hill made an appearance at Pensacola City Hall during a meeting of the Women For Responsible Legislation. During the event, a man commented that the Bible contained a passage concerning putting gay people to death and Hill’s response — that such a passage was also in the Old Testament — and a subsequent jokey-discussion regarding proposing similar legislation has garnered calls for the lawmaker’s resignation.
Mayor Robinson has made a series of increasingly harder-edged statements regarding the issue, condemning Hill’s remarks and distancing the city from such sentiments. Monday, the mayor addressed the matter further.
“I’ve listened the audio,” Robinson noted. “Kaycee and I have listened to the entire audio.”
Mayor Robinson reiterated a previous statement, stressing the city’s desire to be inclusive, and said that he didn’t find Rep. Hill’s comments to be compatible with such a philosophy.
“Mike’s comments, I’ve listened to them, they were not consistent with that,” the mayor said. “I mean, they, you know, at any point — and while I don’t know that he necessarily advocated specifically for killing people, he certainly didn’t address that in an appropriate way and it appeared that he was tacitly, you know, condoning it, so in that sense we felt like we had to make a comment. We made a comment about it and at this point I think we’ve made all the comments we need to make.”
Robinson said he wasn’t surprised that the episode had generated statewide outcry from fellow legislators — “they value every Floridian, we value every Pensacolian” — and also responded to a question about working with Rep. Hill on interests of import to Northwest Florida.
“I’ve disagreed with all different types of people, I think the idea is how do you work around that,” the mayor said, before again distancing the city from Hill: ““I just want to be very clear that those kind of comments are not the kind of comments that represent the city of Pensacola.”