Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Abolishing the SRIA: The Ironies

"The proposal appears to come from county commissioner Mike Whitehead. For years, Whitehead has yearned after Pensacola Beach the way Dracula lusts after women."

The estimable Derek Pivnick reported Wednesday that Escambia County Commissioners once again have under consideration a proposal to eliminate the Santa Rosa Island Authority:
"The County Commission is set to discuss dissolving the SRIA at its committee of the whole meeting Thursday. Commissioners still would have to vote on the measure at a regular meeting. They then likely would ask state lawmakers to introduce legislation to dismantle the Island Authority."
Predictably, the proposal appears to come from county commissioner Mike Whitehead. For years, Whitehead has yearned after Pensacola Beach the way Dracula lusts after women -- as a mere object to be drained of all blood so that he can feed himself and they are left dry and lifeless, a mere husk.

This is the third time in the past ten years Escambia county commissioners have sought to abolish the SRIA. As before, the SRIA board likely will oppose its own execution. Two veteran board members, Bill Griffith and Thomas Blas, already are on record as opposing the move. As Pivnick reports:
"They said the residential building cap may have been reached but hotels still have building room. They also argue oversight is needed as rebuilding from hurricanes continues.

'We have a specific charter that allows us to be in existence," Blas said. 'We're an intimate part of the island.'

[Bill] Griffith, appointed by Whitehead, said the Island Authority is in a better position to oversee what's happening and is more responsible for the controlled development that has taken place on the beach than the County Commission, he said."
We can't avoid mentioning that the abolition issue, though barely a day old, already is weighted with heavy ironies. It's hard to find any good guys in this fight.

Take Bill Griffith. In his quoted remarks in today's Pensacola News Journal, he lays claim to 'controlling beach development' as a reason to retain the agency he helped to direct for the past fourteen years. Yet, in his many years on the SRIA board Griffith has led the charge time and again --
  • to approve massive dunes-destroying high rises,
  • to promote huge hotels using public money to finance private developers,
  • to upscale island infrastructure to make room for more development,
  • to approve dangerously-erosive pier extensions farther and farther into Santa Rosa Sound until the day seems not far off when they may as well become bridges to Gulf Breeze.
  • to widen main island roads for future development although every traffic study conducted on Pensacola Beach shows the existing roadways were more than adequte to handle currently allowable growth through 2025, and
  • to finance the road project, Griffith and SRIA board colleagues signed a formal written agreement essentially surrendering the SRIA's purse strings to Escambia County for the next forty years.
Irony upon irony: as it happens, too, Griffith currently is the appointee of Whitehead to the SRIA. Maybe not for much longer.

In yet another irony, because of the bond agreement over road-widening which Griffith pushed, virtually every SRIA decision that might remotely affect the agency's ability to pay the annual tab is now subject to county review and approval or disapproval. As described by out-going SRIA general manager Monte Blews in February 2003 [pdf file] to the then-existing County Charter Study Commission --
"[O]n the bond issues, one for 22 million dollars for roads and 20 million dollars for beach nourishment... the SRIA is committed to [pay the county] 600,000 dollars a year for the next 30 years. The first 10 years they will be paying back on beach nourishment, and after that, they will pick up their share of the responsibility for the 30-year bond issue, particularly on the roads."
What more could county commissioners want? The SRIA already has indentured itself to the county and handed over the purse strings.

Equally surprisingly, the current year's president of the Pensacola Beach Residents & Leaseholders Assn., Tona DeMers, is quoted by Pivnick as saying the SRIA's "time has come and gone." That may be true, but it certainly doesn't mean the time has come for direct county commissioner administration of Pensacola Beach.

DeMers' remarks should not be misunderstood. We think she is trying to signal that if the county moves to abolish the SRIA, then residents and business owners most assuredly will revive the campaign to incorporate Pensacola Beach as a self-governing municipality. Indeed, abolition of the SRIA would leave them with no other reasonable choice.

For more than half a century there has been a consensus at the state, county, and local levels that the proper administration of services on Pensacola Beach requires an on-site government. It's also been said, repeatedly, that the county commissioners need to find ways to reform the agency so that it is more responsive to the public interest and needs of island residents and businesses. Nearly every Escambia County commissioner-ordered study -- and there have been half a dozen or more of them -- confirms that judgment.

In 1991, the "Westmark Report" concluded that:
"the focus of SRIA [has]... evolved over time from its principal charter of encouraging and managing growth and development of the Island to a custodial form of government occupied primarily with providing various services to Island residents and visitors, arbitrating disputes, and generally focusing on short-term problems and issues."
See, Santa Rosa Island Study Committee Report," Escambia County Board of Commissioners, August 1, 1991.

That blue-ribbon county study committee found the SRIA in 1991 "unresponsive" and ineffective. Yet, it reached a consensus that Pensacola Beach is best administered from the island itself and what was really needed was reform of SRIA, not abolition.

County commissioners ignored the findings of their own study.

Another study commissioned by county commissioners in 1997 concluded that some form of island-based governmental operations "should remain in existence." That study, too, recommended significant reforms. See, Gregg Welstead, "The Santa Rosa Island Authority: Current Duties and Functions – A Report for the Escambia County Board of County Commissioners," Escambia County Board of Commissioners, November 10, 1997.

The Welstead report concluded:
"After examining the functions and services provided by the Island Authority, it is the consensus of the reviewers that the Authority should remain in existence. The Authority's ability to respond rapidly to leaseholder and visitor concerns and fix whatever problems present themselves is commendable and its stewardship of the Island is evident. Likewise, its initiatives to increase tourism through advertising, and ensure visitors return year after year by maintaining high standards of cleanliness and offering a variety of events year-round, ensure a continuous stream of revenue to the County in the form of bed taxes and the local option sales tax.

"It is the reviewers' opinion that elimination of the Authority, or reduced service levels in any of the areas currently served by the Authority, will seriously jeopardize the tourist trade and impact tax revenue."
That last sentence was true when written and it is still true today. According to certain of our tourist promotion friends, who asked not to be named out of concern for their jobs, "millions of dollars, year after year" are generated from the room tax on Pensacola Beach. The money, they say, goes directly into the coffers of the county's tourist development council.

Although 30% or more of all such county hotel room tax revenues are earned by Pensacola Beach commercial establishments, not one dime has been returned to the SRIA or the Pensacola Beach Chamber of Commerce, according to the same sources. Instead, TDC funds are turned over to the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, which manifestly has a stronger interest in promoting off-island interests of the "Downtown Crowd" and other businesses far removed from Pensacola Beach.

There is another irony that should not go unnoticed. The strong suspicion has arisen in certain quarters that SRIA general manager Buck Lee secretly may be behind the abolition move.

Lee has not been a popular replacement for former SRIA general manager Monte Blews. In his first year on the job he received poor performance reviews, as we reported early this year.

Although he and the board 'kissed and made up' -- as we also reported -- it was said that he was given only a one-year renewal of the contract. That year would be just around the corner.

There was never much to recommend Buck Lee for the job. He has no education to speak of and certainly none in public administration, management, accounting, or mass marketing that would qualify him for running the $8 million SRIA agency. His one claim to fame is that he once was a county commissioner in neighboring Santa Rosa County.

What would drive Buck Lee to go behind the backs of SRIA board members and seek the abolition of the agency? Not only might he have the willies over board renewal of his contract, but we're guessing Buck Lee would rather be dealing with his own kind -- county politicians -- without being required to answer to SRIA board members.

If the SRIA is abolished, Escambia County most probably would have to follow the alternative blueprint outlined in Gregg Welstead's report: create a new county department that would effectively be staffed by the same people doing the same things. So much for Whitehead's argument, as reported by Pivnick and other local media sources today, that the SRIA "duplicates" existing county functions.

Since the Welstead report points to creating a "Pensacola Beach Department" as the second-best solution, just who do you suppose would be named to administer that department if the SRIA were to be abolished?

Someone needs to inquire if Mike Whitehead and Buck Lee know the answer.

Amplification Dept.
Thursday, Sept. 14

In a fact-free editorial that skirts close to complete incoherence, the PNJ sees 'irony' in Whitehead's proposal, too, but then chickens out, quotes itself from several years ago, overlooks all the past studies which county commissioners also have forgotten, and concludes, in effect, 'Ah, what the heck -- let's run the risk of wall-to-wall condos.'

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