Saturday, May 31, 2008

Un-News Assignment

You know it's a really slo-o-o-o-w weekend at the Pensacola News Journal when they dust off the hoary story line about banning alcohol on Pensacola Beach's sandy shoreline and slap it on the front page, along with a "file photo" after the jump that's so old it's in black and white. This is a beach that can't even enforce the ordinance against glass containers, much less regulate liquid contents.

Here's the reporter's assignment:
  • Grab a quote from some reincarnation of Carrie Nation that no one has ever heard of before. Just about any Baptist will do.
  • Read the quote back to beach bar owner June Gerra to get her salivating over the prospect of escalating profits once beach goers are prohibited from buying beer at cash-and-carry joints and hauling it down to the beach. June will play along by pretending she's only concerned about public safety.
  • Call any county pol who's trolling for votes and hint at the ink he'll get if he climbs aboard the prohibition bandwagon.
  • For story art, we need a little cheesecake on the beach or some shlub swilling a beer in the water. Better yet, why not both?
Next year, rinse and repeat.

Friday, May 30, 2008

No Ford In Your Future

It's not yet available on line, but today's dead-tree version of the Pensacola News Journal confirms that Gulf Breeze Ford has shut down.

Carlton Proctor's lede reads "Citing economic conditions, World Ford will close its Gulf Breeze dealership on Saturday... ." Actually, the business effectively disappeared last Saturday. Carelton might have taken a swing by, as we did last Sunday when we snapped the above photo. The inventory simply went Poof!

Speaking of dead trees, does anyone remember just how many hundreds of live oak and pine trees were felled -- over the angry protests of neighbors -- when the dealership was first built back in 2003? Alas, John Gunn is no longer available to tell us.

Survival of the Fitful

The Darwinian competition between the Fitful Sleeping Crabs and the Deaf Bar Flies continues on Pensacola Beach. It seems the two subspecies cannot survive together in the narrow ecological niche along the shores of Little Sabine Bay. One or the other is destined to become an endangered species.

The SRIA looks like it's about to weigh in on the side of the bar flies. Under a proposal that goes before the full board in June, SRIA general manager Buck Lee would change county law to allow them to enjoy unlimited musical noise until "midnight between Sunday and Wednesday, and 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday."

The crabs will just have to adapt. Get night jobs, maybe, or learn to live without sleep.

Mobile's WALA-TV has a news clip:

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Constantinople: After the Fall

"The fighting lasted from dawn until noon, and while the massacre went on in the city, everyone was killed; but after that time they were all taken prisoner... and this was the end of the capture of Constantinople, which took place in the year one thousand four hundred and fifty-three, on the twenty-ninth of May, which was a Tuesday."
-- Nicolo Barbaro, "Diary of the Siege of Constantinople 1453"
(Jones trans. 1969)

Five hundred and fifty-five years ago this very day, beginning at about 6 am local time, besieging Ottoman forces led by Sultan Mehmed Khan Gazi (aka Mehmet II) breached the Theodosian Walls of Constantinople and the city soon fell. The Sultan was aided in no small measure by a European mercenary metal forger, known to history only as Orban.

Some say, with a slightly over-broad brush, that this day marked the end of the Middle Ages in Europe. For others it signaled a rejuvenated "messianic belief in the final victory" of Islam.

Perhaps the most enduring effect of the fall of Constantinople, as Niccolo Machiavelli recognized, was the radical alteration in the very nature of warfare. As his alter ego "Fabrizio" remarks in The Art of War's Socratic dialogue, "the methods and organizations of war in all the world, with respect to those of the ancients, are extinct."

This alteration in the very nature of warfare was caused by combining the new substance we now call gunpowder with an even more modern advanced technology of metal forging which for the first time could create cannon barrels mammoth enough to hurl huge weights over half a mile with lethal accuracy and unprecedented force. The deadly combination "rendered the traditional high, thick walled edifices of feudal Europe [exemplified at Constantinople] indefensible."

As Roger Crowley has written in his thoroughly engaging history, 1493: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West:
What finally emerged from Orban’s foundry once the molds had been knocked off was “a horrifying and extraordinary monster.” It was 27 feet long. The barrel, walled with 8 inches of solid bronze to absorb the force of the blast, had a diameter of 30 inches, enough for a man to enter on his hands and knees and designed to accommodate a stone shot weighing something over half a ton.
Forever after, as it seems we have yet to fully appreciate even in this nuclear age, the peoples of the earth have no rational alternative but to try to coexist in peace. No walls can keep us safe. Isolation is no longer an option.

Consequently, it is irrational to refuse to engage in diplomacy with our adversaries.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Short Film Review: "Recount"

Having suffered through HBO's fictional re-run of the 2000 presidential election, which Alessandra Stanley correctly describes as an "astute and deliciously engrossing film," here's what we think:

Four-Letter Words Dept.

Former Texas senator Phil Gramm, who "slipped an Enron-backed provision into the Commodities Futures Modernization Act" that made the Enron scandal almost inevitable, is now John McCain's "econ brain." He's also a vice-president and (until three weeks ago) a lobbyist for an investment bank that helped bring about the mortgage crisis.

Here Is Raed

Where is Raed? Turns out he's here in the U.S. -- now. And he has his own blog, too.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Sound of Beach Music

Pensacola News Journal reporter Jamie Paige is relatively new, so perhaps he can be forgiven for not knowing that the brouhaha over loud bar music disturbing nearby Pensacola Beach residents is merely the latest iteration in a continuing war over noise that goes back over ten years.

Remember Banana Bob's on the banks of Little Sabine Bay? Back in the day, South Harbor condo unit owners and home owners across the bay were complaining about raucous music into the wee hours then, too. What they were saying then could have served as today's script:
Lys St. Aubin, 40, lives in South Harbor condominiums, in the beach's core business area. She runs her washing machine and clothes dryer at night to help buffer the live bands.

"It is very loud, and on the weekends they play until 2 a.m.," said St. Aubin. "You can feel vibrations when you're lying in bed. My nerves are fried. We can't sleep because of it."

The difference is, back then the Escambia County sheriff's substation trained a decibel meter on the problem, enforced the law, and the bands at Banana Bob's were made to quiet down. Today, the sheriff's office (with the apparent complicity of SRIA general manager Buck Lee) is refusing to enforce the law.

The reasons articulated in today's newspaper are laughable. According to reporter Paige:
The Sheriff's Office hasn't actively enforced the ordinance, which would require expensive decibel meters, training and certification to use them, said sheriff's Sgt. Ted Roy, who works at the beach substation.
In other words, Sgt. Roy is saying, 'we can't afford decibel meters and, anyway,we've grown too stupid and untrained to use them as we once did.'

This is patently ridiculous, of course. Is the sheriff's office going technologically backward? Someone there should google enforcing noise ordinances. It's a serious medical problem.

Indeed, someone is even inviting noise pollution stories for a planned book on the subject. South Harbor residents -- use those sleepless hours to send in your tales!

We suspect one of two things is really going on here. Either the sheriff's substation is refusing to enforce the law because beach businesses are more generous campaign contributors than residents, or someone in law enforcement is angling for the dough to attend a noise pollution conference.

We just happened to notice that the Acoustical Society of America is gathering in Paris, France the end of next month. Do you suppose beach residents pay enough in MSBU law enforcement fees to send a deputy there?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day 2008

"We would suggest that the best remembrance, the greatest tribute, we can pay those who have died in their nation's wars, and those fated to do so, is not simply to institutionalize their sacrifice on one day out of the year. Rather it is to live our own lives as citizens of this Republic, and conduct our affairs as a power in the world, according to the higher goals in whose name these sacrifices are made."

Los Angeles Times, 1968

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Barrier Island Girl Goes Gay

Our favorite Pensacola Beach photographer, Barrier Island Girl -- who by the way, if it matters to you at all, is happily married to a person of the opposite sex -- wandered down the beach with her camera this weekend. Great photos, funny commentary. A good time is being had by all.

Our favorite? The "Betty Ford Clinic Class Reunion," above. Second place? "Camp Flamingo."

There are more, lots more....

Keep up with the island's visual beauty and good times on the beach by checking in with Barrier Island Girl.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

White House Memorial Day Celebration

How did George W. Bush spend his Memorial Day Weekend? By pissing on the troops.

Foreclosure by the Numbers

It isn't readily available in the near-coastal areas of Gulf Breeze and Pensacola Beach but the Santa Rosa Press-Gazette, published in the north-county town of Milton, can be found on-line. Something good has happened to this small town newspaper in the past couple of years.

With limited resources, The Press-Gazette has been doing a bang-up job covering local and even national news from a local community perspective. The latest example: Jeni Senter's dispatch on the impact felt by local renters caught up in the snowballing housing crisis. (Be generous and forgive the awkwardly worded headline, which might have been intended to read "Renters Feel the Squeeze of Foreclosure Pinch.")

The lede smartly encapsulates the story: "Renters across Florida are being evicted because their landlords aren’t paying the mortgage." The essence is, a lot of apartment dwellers and house tenants are being evicted even though they pay the rent on time. The reason is their landlords are defaulting on their own mortgages.
Many unscrupulous landlords will continue to collect their tenant’s rent payments, even though they know eviction is inevitable and just a few weeks to months away.

"For those tenants, the shock of being forcibly evicted combined with the apparent loss of their security deposit and last month’s rent money, causes anger, embarrassment and rudely disrupts their lives," says [lawyer Karl] Klein.

Senter also does foreclosure by the numbers. And those numbers are shocking:
In Santa Rosa County alone there are currently over 35 apartments in foreclosure. This does not include the single residence homes being foreclosed. Although many of these single family homes are lived in by the owners, others are rented to tenants.

The foreclosures of all these homes and apartments are resulting in a new class of homeless families. And now more than ever, these homeless families don’t have the funds required to put down deposits and other associated costs with moving into a new home.
* * *
According to Family Promise of Santa Rosa County, in 2005, 39% of renters in Santa Rosa County were unable to afford a two-bedroom unit at fair market rent. Families in the county had to work 72 hours per week at minimum wage to afford a two-bedroom rental unit.

And, there is this: A local homeless advocacy group, Family Promise of Santa Rosa County "estimates the daily homeless count in Santa Rosa County is 7,363 people."

That is huge for a county of Santa Rosa's size; nearly twice the total part-time and year-round residential population of Pensacola Beach; or, for another comparison, somewhere around 65% of the total population of Gulf Breeze.

Reporter Senter also discovered that foreclosure lawsuits in Santa Rosa during the first five months of this year are being filed at a pace double that of last year and more than three times that of the year before:
According to the Santa Rosa County Clerk of Court, in 2005 there were 201 foreclosures in the county. In 2006, this number dropped to 196 foreclosures. However, this trend took a sharp climb because in 2007, the Clerk’s office reports 370 foreclosures in Santa Rosa County. The economic situation throughout the country appears to be in crisis and Santa Rosa County is following closely. As of Wednesday, The Clerk of Court has over 301 foreclosures listed for the county, not even six months into the year 2008.
As we mentioned a while ago, ["The Clerk's Tale"] foreclosure filings in neighboring Escambia County reportedly have increased by similar percentages. The raw numbers of renter evictions and homelessness in the Pensacola area must be tripling here, too.

It's common wisdom that, nationwide, things are only going to get worse. Experts, as Bloomberg News reports, foresee no improvement until 2010 at the earliest.

We've spoken with local real estate brokers who've been quoted publicly as saying the local housing market is improving. But privately, they tell us a recovery in the Pensacola area is likely to lag two or three years behind any national upswing.

Maybe so, maybe not. One useful indicator could be had if newspapers tracked the number of foreclosure filings by the week or month. Put 'em next to the weather forecast.

Unless, of course, the press for some reason wants to shield the public from news that actually affects their lives.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Battle of the Taxes

One of the enduring myths about Florida is that we are a low-tax state. We aren't. Government services here -- from public schools to fire protection to highway construction and maintenance -- cost just as much as anywhere else, if not more.

The two differences are (1) Floridians whine about taxes a lot more than most others; and (2) Local politicians have responded by dipping into the Thesaurus of Arcane Government Synonyms a little too often.

We don't have a state income tax. We have sales taxes, special assessments, service fees, local options, user fees, excise taxes, tolls, license fees, processing fees, etc. etc. etc. We even have "shipping and handling" fees, just like Ebay. (It's true! Try requesting a copy of a state document under the Sunshine Act.)

Now, we're about to see an explosion in another kind of tax substitute -- the Fire, Law Enforcement, and Emergency Medical fee. (We suggest "FLEM" for short.)

According to the Ft. Walton Daily News, the 'redneck' town of Milton leads the way in the Panhandle. Gulf Breeze will be following soon. Can Pensacola Beach be far behind?
According to the fees established in Milton, the police fee would be $235 per accident, while the fire/rescue fee would be set at $300 per accident. When this is billed, each separate bill would include a $50 service charge. An accident involving the police and fire response would total $635.
In case of billing disputes, a "special master" will be hired to hear the appeals. He'll be hired by the Government, of course -- so long as the Government likes his rulings.

Detainees at Guantanamo probably would get a fairer hearing.

As Rick Outzen pointed out when Pensacola was considering a similar measure a few months ago, "Flat fees for essential government services punish the elderly and the poor. There are no homestead exemptions for fees. Fees aren’t tax deductible like property taxes."

An additional advantage of this new Thesaurus tax is that the pols who run things can pretend it isn't a tax. Consequently, "they don’t have to send our TRIM notices when they raise the fees in years to come." Anti-tax obsessives can't even vote against it.

This cheeseparing of public services is all part of the ongoing atomization of the American community. As Bill Moyers has suggested, over the past thirty years --
a disciplined, well-funded and closely-coordinated coalition of corporate elites, power-hungry religious conservatives, and hard-line right-wing operatives has mounted an aggressive drive to dismantle the public foundations and philosophy of shared prosperity and fairness in America.
* * *
The public institutions, the laws and regulations, the ideas, norms, and beliefs which aimed to protect the common good and helped to create America's iconic middle class, are now gone, greatly weakened, or increasingly vulnerable to attack. The Nobel Laureate economist Robert Solow sums it up succinctly: What it's all about, he says, "is the redistribution of wealth in favor of the wealthy and of power in favor of the powerful."

So, be forewarned: If you plan to have a heart attack or want to get into a fender-bender, be sure to gather the evidence, first, that the "fault" isn't yours. It was the other guy's.

These days, even when it comes to ambulance services it's every man for himself.

The 'Noble Disease'

Looks like it's been a bad month for fantasists who have befriended both McCain and Obama. It's hasn't been great for the politicians, either, for that matter.

As it happens, the post-modern short story writer Donald Barthelme had some entertaining insights on the craziness of pastors, nearly a generation ago. "January" was originally published in The New Yorker. It's a fictional interview with the fictional character of "Thomas Breaker," a deeply depressed man who spent his life -- wasted it, he now realizes -- studying and writing about and investing his belief in religion.

Here's an excerpt:
Heraclitus said that religion is a disease, but a noble disease. I like that.

Teaching of any kind is always open to error. Suppose I taught my children a little mnemonic for the days of the month and it went like this: "Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November, all the rest have thirty-one, except for January, which has none." And my children taught this to their children and other people, and it came to be the conventional way of thinking about the days of the month. Well, there'd be a little problem there, right?

I can do without certitude. I would have liked to have faith.

The point of my career is perhaps how little I achieved. We speak of someone as having had "a long career" and that's usually taken to be admiring, but what if it's thirty-five years of persistence in error? I don't know what value to place on what I've done, perhaps none at all is right. I wish I'd done something with soybeans, been able to increase the yield of an acre of soybeans, then I'd know I'd done something. I can't say that.
Marx had it right. Religion is not only the opiate of the people and the "sigh of the oppressed creature," but also the "heart of a heartless world." It's best to judge our politicians by how many soybeans they can reap.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Idle Idol Poll

Is "American Idol" Fixed?
Of course. Combine Fox TV and the Music Industry, how could it be otherwise?
We'll soon see. The grand jury is meeting right now.
Maybe. Is Dick Cheney running this show behind the scenes, too?
That's the $64,000 Payola Question!
No way. Sedentary TV viewers always know genuine talent when they see it.
I decline to answer on the grounds that my answer may incriminate myself.
AT&T could care less as long as you keep paying to call in your vote
Free polls from

Rooms at the Beach Inn(s)

We're stumped. Why is it every year so many business people on Pensacola Beach insist on telling the press well in advance of Memorial Day weekend that beach hotels are "almost full" with advance reservations and things are looking crowded? If you were contemplating a trip to, say, Disney World would you be more or less likely to travel all that way after reading that there might not be room for you at an inn and the lines are likely to be long?

Thankfully, if Diogenes and his fabled lantern were around today and searching for an honest beach business person, he'd find her in a long-time Pensacola Beach resident and hotel manager Beverly McCay. Beverly manages the Holiday Inn Express on Ft. Pickens Road (formerly known as The Dunes). She can always be relied upon for an honest assessment as well as a good deal.

In yesterday's PNJ, Adam Ziglar quotes her as saying, truthfully, "Typically by Tuesday, the week of Memorial Day, we would have a waiting list for this weekend." But not this year, it seems, and that "concerns" her.

Translation: While the beach is back, there's still plenty of room for newcomers to the beach this weekend.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Gulf Breeze Booze Rebuke

Veteran Letter-to-the-Editor writer John Shuster of Gulf Breeze doubtless raised a lot of eyebrows this morning with his latest missive, to which the Pensacola News Journal assigned the headline, "Publix Above the Law on Liquor Restrictions?"

As usual in such forums, however, there is less here than meets the eye.

The letter is referring to the new Publix supermarket which opened a couple of weeks ago in Gulf Breeze Proper. The store includes acres and acres of... Well, okay, two or three aisles of wine, beer, and hard liquor for sale.

But Shuster's complaint is a beaut:
Remember the wet/dry vote for Santa Rosa County? We voted wet, but with restrictions.

That means if you were lucky enough to get one of the liquor licenses from the lottery you could open a liquor store in Santa Rosa County no less than 2,000 feet from a school or church. License holders were scrambling in Gulf Breeze to find a suitable location. The closest location by law was established just east of Villa Venyce, past Gulf Islands National Seashore.

How is it, then, that the new Publix grocery store in Gulf Breeze proper, across the street from three schools and 200 yards from the Catholic Church, can have a full liquor store?

I was told that "as long as we don't have a sign on the store it passed the law." If I was a liquor store owner down the highway, I would be ticked.
As it happens, there were some liquor store owners who were 'ticked.' Wayne Wheatley of Pensacola Beach and Gulf Breeze was one.

As the Gulf Breeze News explained a year ago, this week, when Publix went before the Gulf Breeze City Council to ask for a zoning variance, Wheatley spoke in opposition:
"No one is here from the school system across the street, No one is here from the churches next door, no one is here from the police department.

"I think the logic behind the ordinance is to not subject children and churches to liquor sales. This property is bordered on three sides by either churches or schools."

At the time, we are told, Wheatley was planning to open a tackle shop "at the base of The Three Mile Bridge." Tackle shops, as we all know, must sell beer and other libations. It's one of the Ten Commandments or a federal law, or something. So his complaint really could not have been based on moral objections to selling alcohol, per se.

The zoning variance was approved on May 21, 2007, over the single dissenting vote of councilman Richard Fulford. You can read the minutes here.

End of story? Not quite. A part of the news story that ran in the Gulf Breeze News at the time that we liked well enough to remember all these many months was reporter Vici Papajohn's casual observation, "Wheatley's son and wife also spoke against the variance."

Maybe it's because we read too much flash fiction, but those nine little words in that simple sentence struck us as pregnant with possibilities. They fired our imagination with visions of a lad not unlike a barefoot Huckleberry Finn, bamboo pole slung over one shoulder, standing before the solemn suits of the City Council to speak up for his Pa. And the wife, like some woe-weighted character from a Flannery O'Connor novel -- Bailey's nameless grandmother, perhaps, in "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" dressed in her "navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim" -- defiantly staring down the 'Misfits' of the City Council even as she knows in her heart it's all preordained to come to a tragic end.

The truth is, Publix executives could have asked the Gulf Breeze City Council for a zoning variance to sell Absynthe from the pulpit of the nearest church and pipe it through the water fountains of the high school across the street and the city council would not have denied them.

It's just in the nature of the beast.

Again, from Flannery O'Connor:
"She was a talker, wasn't she?" Bobby Lee said, sliding down the ditch with a yodel.

"She would of been a good woman," The Misfit said, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."

"Some fun!" Bobby Lee said.

"Shut up, Bobby Lee," The Misfit said. "It's no real pleasure in life."

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A Poet for President?

Long before becoming a politician, Barack Obama was the editor of the prestigious Harvard Law Review and author of a well-regarded autobiographical memoir. ["Dreams of My Father"].

Now, as Harper's Magazine reminds us, he wrote poetry, too. At least two poems, anyway, penned when he was nineteen years old. They were first published by a long-deceased student literary journal known as "Feast."

In truth, The New Yorker was the first to unearth the poems and give them new exposure, nearly a year ago. That magazine asked Yale literature professor Harold Bloom to give the poems a retrospective review. The good professor "was not unimpressed with the young man’s efforts," we are told, although he added, "Obama has chosen the right career, at least if it comes to a tossup between politico and poet."

Typical Yale snobbishness, if you ask us. In any event, you can be the judge:
By Barack Obama (1981)

Under water grottos, caverns
Filled with apes
That eat figs.
Stepping on the figs
That the apes
Eat, they crunch.
The apes howl, bare
Their fangs, dance,
Tumble in the
Rushing water,
Musty, wet pelts
Glistening in the blue.

Most folk think the immediate question this political year is, "Will Americans vote for a mixed race politician for president?"

We think the tougher question is, "Can Americans who time and again elect leaders who don't read books bring themselves to vote for someone who writes them?"

Preemptive War Against Consumers

Bush Republicans and conservatives, generally, are opposed to a larger, more intrusive federal authority -- right? They prefer 'deferring' decision-making power wherever possible to the fifty states -- right?

Don't kid yourself. Not when it comes to shielding corporations from being held accountable for the injuries they cause to ordinary consumers. "State's rights" and a "smaller federal government" are forgotten when corporate profits become the topic of the day.

This became clear last week when actor Dennis Quaid testified before a committee of the House of Representatives. The burden of Quaid's testimony was to sound the alarm about the Bush administration's surge against consumers.

This war is between the Pencil Heads, now firmly entrenched by the Bush administration in the federal bureaucracy, and American consumers who are cheated or injured by badly designed or negligently manufactured products. Bush's pencil heads are winning, as Peter Yost's superb AP article explains:
Faced with an unfriendly Congress, the Bush administration has found another, quieter way to make it more difficult for consumers to sue businesses over faulty products. It's rewriting the bureaucratic rulebook.

Lawsuit limits have been included in 51 rules proposed or adopted since 2005 by agency bureaucrats governing just about everything Americans use: drugs, cars, railroads, medical devices and food.

Decried by consumer advocates and embraced by industry, the agencies' use of the government's rule-making authority represents the administration's final act in a long-standing drive to shield companies from lawsuits.

Yahoo News has a detailed run-down on all the agency rules that have been put in place to protect corporations that injure or cheat consumers. Hundreds more are coming down the pike.

Just as with the Constitution, the national debt, the economy, the courts, the Middle East, and in the world at large it looks like it will take decades to undo the damage eight years of George W. Bush has caused the nation and its people. Only the corporations and military contractors should be sad to see him go.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Lobbyist Central

Kevin Drum:
Only a child would believe that McCain didn't know who these guys were when he hired them. The press really needs to step up their game a notch on this story.

The Way Things Are Done

No fresher illustration can be had for why Pensacola remains a first-place locale run by fourth-rate politicians than the way the Pensacola city council has gone about hiring a new city attorney.

Pensacola city councilman Sam Hall explained two weeks ago in a short piece on his blog the sane, rational, lawful, and non-discriminatory plan for recruiting a new City Attorney:
The nine applicants for the job will be ranked from 1-9, with one being the highest. The top four will be invited for an interview with Council at a date to be determined.
It turns out that "date to be determined" is never-and-a-day:
The council unexpectedly voted last week to hire [William "Rusty"] Wells, abbreviating its already announced plan to rank nine candidates for the job and then to interview the top four.
Today's PNJ editorializes:
[T]he council, impervious as always to complaints that it seems to have great difficulty — or perhaps reluctance — as a group to look outside of its tight little circle, settled for the most comfortable choice, with little apparent interest in expanding its vision.

We fear that for an increasing number of people, the response will be, "So what's new?"

'So, what's new?' Is the PNJ editorial board prescient? You be the judge.

In today's news, Pensacola city councilman Sam Hall, who voted against short-circuiting the process, says with disgust: "What's new? That's the way things are done here in Pensacola."

Document the DCF Atrocities

The Florida Department of Children & Families investigated Nicole Heath 11 times before her youngest, baby De' Adrian Wilson, died in an accidental apartment fire in Delray Beach on May 4, newly released documents show.

The first case began in 1999 after the accidental death of her 2-month-old son.

Now, as the DCF investigates De'Adrian's death, the agency is left to answer how this mother of 10 children could be flagged so many times and still be left to care for her youngest children.
* * *
Again and again, Heath had children and reports questioning her ability to care for them prompted investigations. But, except for a case where the father of one girl was found driving with marijuana with the child in the car, investigators found "no indicators for threat of harm," the [agency's] papers said.

Familiar Argument

From the NYT Sunday Magazine:
“I have seen this movie before, and I know how it ends,” says [Max] Cleland, who lost three of his limbs to an errant grenade during the battle of Khe Sanh. “With thousands dead and tens of thousands more injured, and years later you ask yourself what you were doing there. To the extent my friend John McCain signs on to this, he is endangering America’s long-term interests, and probably his own election in the fall.”
* * *
It doesn’t help that McCain has never put his argument for staying into some larger context that might explain what he really means by “winning” the war in Iraq. If you ask him to define victory, his answer is that Americans soldiers will have stopped dying, and that the Iraqi military and government will be functioning on their own. That would be a great day, no doubt, but surely the overarching purpose of a war can’t be to stop more soldiers from dying in it.
* * *
McCain’s main reason for continuing on in Iraq seems to be that we’re already there and must not accept defeat, and that’s an argument that probably feels all too familiar to many Americans who lived through a decade of aimless war in Vietnam, to no discernible end.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Terrorizing America

"If I Were a Terrorist" by James Pence of the Hillbilly Report:

Friday, May 16, 2008

Political Quiz

Who said what?

To the question, "Do you think that American diplomats should be operating the way they have in the past, working with the Palestinian government if Hamas is now in charge?" Who gave the following answers?

1. "They're the government; sooner or later we are going to have to deal with them, one way or another, and I understand why this administration and previous administrations had such antipathy towards Hamas because of their dedication to violence and the things that they not only espouse but practice, so . . . but it's a new reality in the Middle East. I think the lesson is people want security and a decent life and decent future, that they want democracy. Fatah was not giving them that."

2. "[T]he belief that somehow communications and positions and willingness to sit down and have serious negotiations need to be done in a face to face fashion... which then enhances the prestige of a nation that's a sponsor of terrorists and is directly responsible for the deaths of brave young Americans, I think is an unacceptable position... ."

Answers below:

1. Sen. John McCain, 2006.

2. Sen. John McCain, 2008.

Whitehead Steps in it Again

Rick Outzen's blog got the scoop. But the PNJ sent Jamie Page out to play catch-up and he grabbed the money quote from Escambia County commission chairman Mike Whitehead:
"I am not ashamed of the fact that I take money from anybody and everybody."

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Allstate Insurance Co.'s Behavior "Potentially Criminal"

"Wherever you may live, if you're shopping for insurance of any kind be sure to read the Consumer Federation's report before you let Allstate wrap its 'horrific' 'good hands' around your neck."
The First District Court of Appeals in Tallahassee has rewritten, but reaffirmed, its original opinion upholding the decision of the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation [OIR] to suspend Allstate Insurance Co. from writing any insurance of any kind. As Sarasota's Herald Tribune reports:
The suspension, which took effect at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, will be lifted as soon as the insurer certifies in an affidavit that it has produced all those documents, said Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty.
* * *
The ban will primarily impact Allstate's new auto insurance sales, which brought the company $1.8 billion in Florida premiums last year.

Among the wholly owned subsidiary Allstate companies affected, according to the Orlando Business Journal, are --
  • Allstate Floridian Insurance Co.
  • Allstate Indemnity Co.
  • Allstate Property & Casualty Insurance Co.
  • Allstate Insurance Co.
  • Allstate Floridian Indemnity Co.
  • Allstate Fire and Casualty Insurance Co.
  • Encompass Insurance Co. of America
  • Encompass Indemnity Co.
  • Encompass Floridian Insurance Co.
  • and Encompass Floridian Indemnity Co.
Existing policy holders are unaffected for the moment. But no new policies can be written.

Upon learning of the ruling Florida Governor Charlie Crist called it "a beautiful thing." Some insurance companies, he said, "are doing very good work. But some of them, like Allstate, have been horrific."

The appellate case decided yesterday has had an odd journey in the hall of mirrors that is the First District Court of Appeals. The first opinion [pdf warning] was issued April 4. Nearly three weeks later, on April 21, the court appeared to be enforcing its decision by issuing a order that would have allowed the OIR to proceed with its ban against Allstate selling insurance until it complies with the subpoena. But half an hour later the court withdrew its order, claiming it had been issued "in error." Today's ruling takes us back to April 21 and will place the power of enforcement squarely in OIR's hands.

Yesterday's court opinion [pdf warning] is about one page longer than the original April 4 decision. The most prominent changes in the new document appear to be that the appeals court twice introduces, now, the word "unique" to describe the circumstances of Allstate's obstinacy; and it emphasizes in a concluding passage that Allstate's behavior has been "willful, indeed potentially criminal."

The Miami Herald's Beatrice Garcia has more on the immediate consequences of yesterday's action:
The company's nine insurance companies operating in Florida now are barred from writing new policies until Allstate fully complies with a state subpoena for documents and information about its rate-setting process and rate filings. * * *

Existing Allstate policyholders are not affected by the ban. Also, the Office of Insurance Regulation will allow consumers who already have quotes from Allstate to buy the policies if they wish.

The state agency subpoenas initially were issued to obtain internal corporate documents that would show whether the company has developed claims handling practices that overtly cheat existing customers. The suspension of Allstate's certificate to write insurance in Florida was imposed because the corporation refused to comply with the subpoena.

And how. As the appeals court's opinion recites, "most of the required documents were withheld." As for others, the corporation "labeled every one" as "trade secrets" even though "some of these 'trade secret' documents were public records." "Many of the documents" that were produced, the court says, "had pages removed."

Courts in other states have demanded production of some of these same documents, and Allstate has stiff-armed them, too, in at least one state exposing itself to multi-million dollar fines. As Florida's insurance regulators have learned --
Allstate was currently being held in contempt of court in Missouri with a $25,000.00 per day fine for its failure to produce documents and, as of the date of the hearing, those fines exceeded $2 million.
That must be some "trade secret" Allstate is trying to hide. More like a corpus delicti.

The insurance company's practices were first documented in a report issued last year by the Consumer Federation of America, titled, "The 'Good Hands' Company or a Leader in Anti-Consumer Practices?: Excessive Prices and Poor Claims Practices at the Allstate Corporation" [pdf warning] There, CFA's director insurance documents how in the past ten years --
property casualty insurers overall have paid out less in claims for every dollar spent on premiums by consumers, as profits and overhead costs increased. Many insurers have implemented pricing “innovations” like using credit scores and multiple rate classifications that appear to have a disparate, adverse impact on poorer and minority consumers. They have changed policy language to hollow out the coverage offered, particularly for home insurance, and dramatically increased consumers’ out-of-pocket costs. They have deployed ambiguous and harmful coverage restrictions that are beyond the ability of consumers to clearly understand. Some insurers have also refused to renew the policies of consumers in coastal regions, forcing them into high-cost state-supported insurance pools. This practice socializes the cost of high risks while privatizing the profitable risks.

As CFA has tracked these questionable practices, one insurance company stood out as a leader in creating and exploiting many of these trends. That insurer is Allstate.
One among many techniques Allstate pioneered is essentially to pay no attention to the merits of any casualty claim. As the CFA report documents:
Allstate was one of the first major insurers to adopt claims payment techniques designed to systematically reduce payments to policyholders without adequately examining the validity of each individual claim, [using] an automated payment system called Colossus. It adopted these techniques after being told by a consultant that these systems would put them in a “zero-sum game” with claimants, including their policyholders who filed claims, in which Allstate shareholders would benefit financially at the expense of policyholders.
There's more, a lot more. Wherever you may live, if you're shopping for insurance of any kind be sure to read the Consumer Federation's report before you let Allstate wrap its "horrific" "good hands" around your neck.

Allstate isn't saying right now whether it will attempt a discretionary appeal to the Florida Supreme Court. But it also is facing other investigations, including claims of industry-wide "collusion, price gouging, conspiracy and breaking state law."

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Call for Comments

The Gulf Breeze News, a worthy weekly that often covers Pensacola Beach issues and events more thoroughly than any other local media outlet, "would like to know what you think about the prospect of fee simple title ownership to property at Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach."

The invitation comes at the end of reporter Pam Brannon's superior article ["Escambia, Santa Rosa Petition for Fee Simple Title"] about the recent joint meeting of the two county commissions:
Send email comments of 200 words or less to: Letters to the editor (e-mail and regular mail) must be signed and include a phone number for verification.

Old Timer and Beach Taxes

Following the recent Pensacola Beach town meeting, we spoke with William DeArmand, a classic Northwest Florida native. DeArmand has lived and worked on Pensacola Beach nearly all his life. He also recalls how, in 1960, the county was so desperate to attract people to live on the beach it gave away the "first house next to the Island Authority building" as a 'Treasure Hunt' door prize.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Taxpayers to Fund Golf Course in Paradise

Nope. Not Pensacola Beach. Not New Orleans, either. Iraq. The Green Zone. Built by the Pentagon. Paid for by Guess Who.

The Guardian has the story. (HT to Jay Ackroyd, who sends this in as a tardy entry for "the worst idea, ever.")

Beach Tax Lawsuits Explained

Update on
Santa Rosa Island Leasehold Tax Cases
By John Pinzino
Island Realty of Pensacola Beach
Remarks read to assembled beach residents, May 12, 2008
(Reprinted here by courtesy of John Pinzino. Links added by this blog.)

Most everyone knows that development of Pensacola Beach came about with a promise of no ad valorem taxes. Over time, laws were changed and leaseholds were taxed even though Escambia County owns the land as well as the improvements.

Recent History of Tax-Free Leaseholds

In 1979, the Florida Legislature passed legislation that defined leasehold interest in government owned property as “intangible personal property.” This legislation changed the law to stipulate that a 100 year lease was the same as ownership, but a 99 year lease was not. Many people attribute this change in the law to the threat from Daytona Speedway that it would leave Volusia County if it had to pay taxes on its 99 year lease.

In Escambia County, the former Property Appraiser and Tax Collector disagreed with the language in this statute and continued to tax improvements on Santa Rosa Island as real property. In 1984, a group of leaseholders filed suit. The case known as Bell v. Bryan effectively put an end to ad valorem taxes on Pensacola Beach from 1987 through 2003.

Renewed Efforts to Tax Beach Leaseholds

All that changed in 2004, even though the legislature made no change in the law. [Escambia County] Property Appraiser Chris Jones decided Beach leaseholders were “equitable owners” based on a Santa Rosa County Circuit Court decision involving Navarre Beach. In December of 2004, five law suits were filed against Property Appraiser Jones and Janet Holley, the Tax Collector. A law firm from Tallahassee represents Jones and Holley in all these Escambia County cases, as well as the Santa Rosa County cases.

I am going to update all these cases without going into great detail. There are some references on the agenda that was handed out that will direct you to web sites where you can find additional information and legal documents related to these cases. (Just in case you need some bed time reading.)

Navarre Beach “Equitable Ownership” Ruling

In June of 2005, the 1st District Court of Appeals upheld the ruling in the Navarre Beach case known as Ward v. Brown. Two members of the 3 judge panel ruled that the automatic renewal clause Santa Rosa County leases made them “perpetual” leases and agreed that the Navarre Beach leaseholders had sufficient rights and duties to make them equitable owners. This ruling does not help the Pensacola Beach cases.

But, the dissenting opinion in Ward v. Brown was very much in our favor. There is hope that other judges will see it our way. There are also differences in the leases for the 2 beaches that could make a difference in the outcome. But, I have to say that so far there hasn’t been any good news.

Pensacola Beach Commercial Leases

The case known as Alvin’s Stores v. Jones involving 32 commercial leases was ruled on by [Circuit Court trial] Judge Nick Geeker in November of 2006. Geeker ruled in favor of the County’s position, citing a number of findings of fact in his order that the attorneys at Shell, Fleming, Davis & Menge felt provided a strong basis for appeal. However, the appeal was not successful.

A three judge panel filed an opinion of "Per curiam - Affirmed" ("PCA") just 5 days after the oral arguments were heard. A PCA means the 3 judges agree with the trial court’s decision and find no need to explain further. This ended the commercial case. There can be no appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.

The commercial plaintiffs must pay ad valorem property taxes from 2004 forward on their improvements. They are also still obligated pay lease fees to the SRIA.

Since the 1st DCA offered no explanation as to why they affirmed the lower court decision by ruling per curiam affirmed, it has no direct precedential impact on other cases. In other words, the appellate decision went against the commercial leaseholders but it cannot be cited as authority that is binding on another court or by a trial judge in a separate case.

Portofino Condo Leases

Portofino is represented in their court case by McDonald, Fleming and Moorhead. This lawsuit challenges the property taxes and the amount of the tax assessment. All the Portofino 99 year residential leases are the same and do not have a guarantee for renewal. Judge Frank Bell likewise ruled in favor of the Property Appraiser and Tax Collector. [See "For Whom Bells Tolls: Portofino Taxes"]

Unlike Geeker, Bell provided no explanation for his ruling. He also made this ruling prior to the outcome of the appeal of the commercial case. Bell’s decision has been appealed. Oral arguments are scheduled for July 30th at the DCA in Tallahassee.

Pensacola Beach Residential Leases

The case involving the most plaintiffs and properties is also being handled by Shell, Fleming, Davis & Menge. There are over 2200 residential properties, both single family residences and condominiums, and more than 3400 individually named plaintiffs involved in this case. All leases are for 99 years, but there are variations on lease provisions that range from the very first leases on the Beach to the most recent residences and condos.

A hearing was held on May 2, 2008 in front of Circuit Court Judge Michael Jones. Both sides presented there arguments for Summary Judgment and provided the court with volumes of paperwork.

Judge Jones seemed very knowledgeable of the issues and law relevant to this case. He asked a lot of questions during the 3 hour hearing. This was very different than the manner in which the hearings in front of Judges Geeker and Bell were conducted. The attorneys were instructed to come [together] to work out which facts in the case both sides agree to and to submit their recommended conclusions to Judge Jones by May 16th.

The judge indicated that he would review all the materials submitted before making his ruling. His order is of course subject to appeal by either side.

The Family Trust Lawsuit

The remaining 2 lawsuits involve the residential and commercial holdings of a family owned company that has leasehold interest in 25 residential condominium units and 2 commercial hotel properties on the Beach. In the case involving the condominiums, Judge Jan Shackelford has ruled in favor of the Property Appraiser, agreeing with the “equitable ownership” argument.

Shackelford also wrote in her summary “The Florida Constitution requires that the Plaintiffs pay ad valorem taxes at local government rates at parity with other citizens of Escambia County.” This decision has been appealed. The case involving the former Dunes and Holiday Inn properties is still open in the Escambia County Circuit Court. No hearing has been scheduled.

Conclusion: New Beach Tax Threatened

Of the 5 Escambia County cases, the commercial case has concluded. Those commercial leaseholders are subject to ad valorem taxes on their improvements and lease fees. Two cases involving residential property are on appeal. One case is awaiting a ruling and another has yet to be heard in the Circuit Court.

I will end with a word about the situation in Navarre Beach. Property taxes on improvements were upheld in the Ward v. Brown case.

In 2006, the Santa Rosa County Property Appraiser also appraised the land [which is owned by the county] as real property and [new] tax bills included tax on the land. A group of leaseholders has filed [a new] suit. They are being represented by Shell, Fleming, Davis & Menge.

Obviously, the outcome of this case is of great interest to leaseholders on Pensacola Beach, as Property Appraiser Jones will follow the lead of his counterpart.

I hope this has set the stage for the other presenters to get you thinking about the issues stemming from the litigation. There are several other members of the Residential Liaison Committee here tonight. * * * If you chose to ask questions during the speakers forum, we will do our best to answer them.

SRO Beach Meeting

It was standing room only last evening at the all-residents' beach meeting called by the Pensacola Beach Chamber of Commerce. Nearly everyone was there except the media and county politicians. At its zenith, over 400 business owners, residents, and friends of the beach were present during the two and a half hour session.

If the Pensacola News Journal sent a reporter it isn't evident in today's paper, where the big news reported by Thyrie Bland is that two juvenile detention officers and "12 deputies, four more than usual, will be keeping an eye on things Sunday at the beach." Thousands of Mobile high school graduation celebrants and adult hangers-on are expected to make their annual trek to the beach.

Francesca Maxime from local television station WEAR-TV showed up late. She got the story wrong, but was perfectly coiffed.

The meeting wasn't called "to protest proposed property taxes, for people who now own homes, on leased beach land." It was to give everyone an update on the various tax lawsuits and offer those in attendance a chance to ask questions or make comments.

The speeches, comments, and questions from the floor ranged widely. Among the issues discussed were the status of Escambia County's effort to impose taxes on business and residential leaseholds, strategies for keeping the beach open to public use, alternatives like municipal incorporation, and concerns about over-development and environmental despoilation both on Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key.

We'll have more on the meeting a bit later. For now, what we want to say is that to understand the abysmal state of the media in Pensacola you should read the grimly hilarious "Pepperoni" by Donald Barthelme. The New Yorker has an excerpt. For the complete short story, buy the book.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Document the DCF Atrocities

Near Kris Wernowsky's lede in today's Pensacola News Journal, May 12, 2008:
One-year-old Ali Jean Paterson died in November 2006 from severe burns she suffered when her father left her unattended in the bath, authorities said. The father, Christopher Paterson, 28, of Molino, was arrested in May 2007 near Gainesville several months after a grand jury indicted him on a manslaughter charge.

Buried deep in the article:
In May 2006, the Florida Department of Children and Families looked into another incident involving Paterson and his child.

The DCF investigated Paterson and the child's mother, Brittany Knapp, after Ali was taken to a local hospital with a broken leg. The parents said they believed Ali tangled her leg in a slot in her crib, said Janice Thomas, circuit administrator for the DCF.

"Based on the information we gathered, we didn't think there was abuse and neglect at that time," Thomas said.

Another great job by Escambia County's Department of Children & Family Scoundrels.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Deceit Beach: Reply to a Critic

We don't visit message boards much, not even our own. So, as it happens, we learned of an anonymous comment about William L. Post's new book, Deceit Beach, from a loyal reader who keeps one eye on this blog and another on the message boards of the Pensacola News Journal.

Essentially, the message board commentator grumbles that because Post is not a lawyer he shouldn't be writing a book "which claims the government deceived leaseholders." This is quite frivolous, as we will show in a moment. First, however, let's give the anonymous critic his moment in the sun:
To claim that advertisements or other parol evidence somehow carries any weight in a legal lease is naive and wrong. The merger doctrine basically... says that ads, verbal promises, merge into the deed or lease, which requires specific language in those conveyance documents to reserve rights set forth in other documents or representations. If the leaseholds were never to be taxed, the lease should have had specific language stating the same.
The short answer to this is that Post has written a history of the Pensacola Beach "tax free" leasehold policy, not a legal brief. His history is written for a general audience, not a lawyers' seminar. As he explains in the book, Post sets out to describe the applicable main legal principles, both for and against taxation of Pensacola Beach leasehold interests, to give context to the historical facts he has uncovered.

It's completely appropriate that in Deceit Beach Mr. Post declines to go into excruciating, lawyer-like detail. For every legal doctrine like "merger" that someone can point to, you can be sure there will be exceptions, and exceptions to the exceptions, and exceptions to those exceptions, ad nauseum.

And, after all, the market for densely written legal writing is confined mostly to the handful of appellate judges who are paid big bucks by the taxpayers to read the turgid tomes of attorneys. It's a nasty job, but someone has to do it.

It also needs to be said that Post gets the general legal principles right. Lawyers are not the only scholars who can write a history of governmental policy.

Take the message board writer's "merger doctrine." Perhaps the leading case in Florida on the so-called "merger doctrine" is Milu v. Duke, 204 So.2d 31 (3d DCA 1967). Although not from the highest court in the state, in real estate cases where the issue is raised Duke continues to be the most-cited precedent in modern Florida appellate court decisions for this proposition:
It is a general rule that preliminary agreements and understandings relative to the sale of property usually merge in the deed executed pursuant thereto. * * *

However, there are exceptions to the merger rule. The rule that acceptance of a deed tendered in performance of a contract to convey land merges or extinguishes the covenants and stipulations contained in the contract does not apply to those provisions of the antecedent contract which the parties do not intend to be incorporated in the deed, or which are not necessarily performed or satisfied by the execution and delivery of the stipulated conveyance.
[emphasis added]
In other words, if there is a promise made which is to be performed after the deed has been issued the merger doctrine will not apply. As the late, great contracts expert, Prof. Charles Corbin, wrote in his seminal treatise, with all of the exceptions that have been endorsed by the courts the merger doctrine has become "merely a 'handy' phrase, of convenient uncertainty and obscurity, that is used so as to avoid the necessity of clear thinking and accurate analysis.” 6 Corbin On Contracts § 1319 (1962).

Moreover, as Post also points out in his book, the law is not so blind to common sense as to endorse outright fraud every time a con man is clever enough to include a merger clause in his sales (or lease) forms.

To be sure, the purely legal discussion in Post's book may appear to the eye of some lawyers to be the least satisfactory part of the book. The main reason for this is that Post intentionally doesn't spend a lot of time or ink delving into complex legal doctrines or fashioning endless lawyer-like arguments, counter-arguments, and surrebuttals about the nuances of prior legal precedents or why they might or might not be applicable to the Pensacola Beach situation.

Quite evidently, that was not his purpose in writing the book. Even so, the purely legal argument passages of Post's book, in themselves, add something valuable to the debate. In those passages Post shows fairly conclusively how his historical research undermines key factual premises adopted by, or openly assumed to be true in, the Florida court opinions he criticizes.

And that, manifestly, is the main purpose of his book: to document the true history and chronology of Escambia County's Pensacola Beach lease tax policy, which he has done meticulously, and to counter-pose the historical facts with the erroneous gloss Florida courts have slapped on that history in their published opinions.

Thus, Post's book does something more subtle -- and far more valuable -- than repeat stale legal arguments. At several key points in his book he adverts to the over-arching legal arguments on the other side, briefly describes their main theme, and then argues that, regardless, given the historical facts he has laid out one truth is ineluctable: for twenty years Escambia County and the SRIA deliberately advertised tax-free leaseholds -- in some instances (like the one illustrated at the top of this article) expressly avowing the exemption would be "permanent policy" -- without disclosing that the county had actual or constructive knowledge that those leaseholds could be taxed at any time the county decided to change its mind.

Escambia County and the SRIA never mentioned this to the potential public of leasehold purchasers (hence the title, "Deceit Beach"). Indeed, during the formative 20 year period from 1949 to 1969 in a number of instances that Post documents, county officials went so far as to claim that taxes were "included" in the lease fees.

This is not a legal point; it is a fact of history. Post is writing a history here, not a lawyer's legal brief. And, thank goodness for that. It so happens, as he ably points out in the book, this history exposes critical factual errors in the Florida supreme court's prior tax case decisions.

As any lawyer should acknowledge, one of the greatest frustrations practicing lawyers experience is to see an appeals court fudge, or ignore, or completely distort key facts of a case, and then use that erroneous recitation of facts to justify application of a legal principle which becomes decisive of the case.

Lawyer or not, in his book William L. Post has exposed just that sort of key factual error in the Florida Supreme Court case of Straughn v. Camp, 293 So.2d 689 (Fla.1974) and others that followed. As the author admits, there is no way to prove conclusively that the Straughn case would have come out in favor of leaseholders had the court gotten the facts right. But it certainly raises serious questions about the validity of the holding in that case and its progeny as guiding precedent.

Assuredly, Mr. Post could have happily collaborated with a lawyer if it had been his intent to write something other than a history of the tax exempt leasehold. But it wasn't. It seems to us a ridiculous criticism to complain that he didn't write the book someone else wants.

For that matter, if he had intended to write a different book, Post might have collaborated with an economist to analyze the historical and contemporary market forces and policy considerations behind leasing beach property versus assessing ad valorem taxes on a beach deed. Certainly, the market dynamics have changed dramatically on Pensacola Beach in the past fifty years. They assuredly will be changing again, thanks to global warming, increased hurricane intensity, and ever-rising property insurance premiums. But it's no accident that some of the more recent residential single family dwelling lease fees on Pensacola Beach are equal to, or even exceed, what mainlanders pay in ad valorem taxes for comparable property.

We also can envision yet another very different book, a sociological study. Why is it, for example, that there seems to be such a disproportionate number of aging trust fund babies who own Pensacola Beach leases? How does it happen that school enrollment at the top-rated Pensacola Beach Elementary School each year seems to include an ever-rising number of students who commute from off the island? What accounts for the manifest trend of diminishing family residences and increasing numbers of non-residential rental spaces replacing them, a trend well documented in detailed U.S. census numbers for Pensacola Beach over the last three decades?

For that matter, why not a book about the environmental and public health issues that led Escambia County to offer tax-free leases in the first place? After all, one substantial reason the island was not attractive to any but a handful of pioneers in the '50s and '60s was fear of polio, the intractable mosquito infestation problem, the primitive condition of water, sewers, and roads, and the slower-than-most-folk-remember adoption of home air conditioning.

The short canal-like area now overgrown with vegetation along the Sound (still visible from the tallest dunes east of Portofino) remains a monument to the fear, greed, and despair of Escambia County officials in the '50s and '60s as they tried everything they could think of to make Pensacola Beach into a viable economic asset. Those man-made rectangular water canals were dug, so informed sources have told us, to be a "mosquito attractor" in hopes of reducing the insect infestation so the island could be developed.

None of these, of course, was the book Post wanted to write. So what? Let those who come after build on his work, be they economists, sociologists, public health specialists, urban planners -- or lawyers for that matter.

First, however, they need to get the facts right. William L. Post has done that. His book will be, as we have said, a must-have for anyone who lives on Pensacola Beach or wants to really know or write about this most unique island community.

Friday, May 09, 2008

News You Won't See on TV

You won't know this news if you depend on the cable so-called "news" channels:
[W]hat is most extraordinary about all of this is that huge numbers of Americas who were subjected to this propaganda by their own Government still don't know that they were, because the television networks which broadcast it to them refuse to tell them about it... .
You have to read about it to see how you've been played for a sucker. Even those of you who depend on NPR.

Pensacola and Navarre Beach - Back Then

Below is an advertisement for Pensacola Beach leaseholds as it appeared in the Kansas City Star, April 2, 1967 (courtesy of William L. Post, author of Deceit Beach).

(click to enlarge)
"The Kansas City Star advertising supplement of 11 pages by the SRIA. * * * On page 4 [the text reads] 'You can stay on 98 or take the Beach Route, State Road 399, but either way you'll end up at Navarre Beach in 20 miles where Santa Rosa County is developing its own beach resort. There, as at Pensacola Beach, you can get tax-free lots... '
* * *
On Page 6, 'Pensacola Beach... Home sites are leased by the county government for 99 years... The Santa Rosa Island Authority, an agency of the county, handles all property leasing - and there are no ad valorem property taxes on the island.'"

-- Excerpt from Deceit Beach at p. 59

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Must-Have Pensacola Beach Book

Title: Deceit Beach: The True Story of Deception
Author: William L. Post
Publisher: Trent's Prints & Publishing (Chumuckla, FL)
ISBN: 10:: 1-934035-42-4 / 13: 978-1-934035-42-9
130 81/2" x 11" pp. (incl. 40 pages of historic illustrations and 33 pp. of appendices and an index)
Price: $29.95 $24.95 (plus shipping)

Pensacola Beach resident William L. Post has just published "Deceit Beach," a 92-page (not counting appendices) historical analysis of the "tax-free" promises made, nationwide, by Escambia County officials to encourage development of Santa Rosa island. The book arrived from the publisher today and it should be hitting the shelves of bookstores and beach shopping venues in the coming weeks.

It will be a brisk seller. We'll have more, much more, to say about Deceit Beach in the coming days and weeks. Judging from a quick skim, however, it's undeniable that with this book Mr. Post has made a vital contribution to the historical record of the greater Pensacola area.

The book is both a narrative history of the tax-free promise that made development of Pensacola Beach possible and a compilation of reproduced historical documents from 1949 to 1969. It belongs in every area library, on the shelf of every Pensacola Beach resident, and in the hands of every mainlander who may be wondering what the ad valorem tax lawsuit is all about. It would serve the public well, too, if Escambia County commissioners and other officials gave it a read.

Post, who is 56 years old, holds an advanced degree in chemistry from Auburn University. He has been a Pensacola Beach resident since 1993 when he retired from the oil industry. His interest in beach history was piqued eleven years later when, as he writes, "Chris Jones, the Property Appraiser for Escambia County... and Janet Holley, the Tax Collector... decided it was time in 2004 to tax the [Pensacola Beach] leaseholders as if the leaseholds were deeded real property."

What ensued for Mr. Post was a sixteen month odyssey through the dusty archives of the Santa Rosa Island Authority, the records of the Escambia County Commission, local public libraries, law libraries, university "special" collections usually not available to the general public, and countless other repositories of historical documents. He has compiled much, though far from all, of what he discovered in Deceit Beach.

The book provides the reader with a clear chronological time line of how, why, when, and which public officials at the federal, state and local levels engineered, and then widely promoted, the express promise that beach leaseholds would remain free from ad valorem taxation for the duration of their renewable leases. Included in Chapter 7 are fifteen pages indexing key documents from governmental files -- and obvious clues to where even more can be found.

Beach readers are likely to find most compelling 41 pages of reproductions of merely some among the hundreds of newspaper and magazine ads, pamphlets, tourist brochures, and other printed media showing how explicitly the Island Authority, Escambia County itself, and even the State of Florida put the governmental imprimatur on their "tax free" promises, from coast to coast in order to attract individuals and families to settle on Pensacola Beach and contribute to its development.

The reproductions in Post's book, although in black and white, are the clearest, cleanest, and most easily readable we have ever seen. In some cases, we recognized ads from the SRIA's muddy archives of reproductions which we and select other residents have seen before; but Post appears to have tracked down the originals, or as close to them as one can get, and the results are stunning. The assembly of documents in itself is compelling evidence that somewhere, someone has been deceiving the public about Pensacola Beach.

"The county flat-out did twenty years of advertising promising no taxation, ever," Post told us today. Those promises were unequivocal, he adds:
These days, I see some county politicians and even state judges trying to say that the ads only described the 'present' condition, as it was back then, of no taxation -- as if no one promised that the tax free exemption would remain that way. But you can't read these advertisements or the minutes of governmental meetings at the time without concluding that is simply wrong. Repeatedly, Escambia County and the SRIA made the explicit promise that the exemption would be binding on the government in the future, too.
Post spares no one who has engaged in the latter-day gloss-over of history. He is especially critical of the state Supreme Court's ruling in Straughn v. Camp, a 1974 ruling which, in Post's words, "ruled that the leaseholds are not [a] public purpose, therefore, no exemption."

Writes Post:
Newly revealed historical facts support the claim that the imposition of ad valorem taxation on plaintiff's leaseholds does impair the obligation of contract. Possibly because of their ignorance of the historical facts, the Florida Supreme Court made illogical statements and ruled there was no impairment of contract.
* * *
The perpetuated error of the Straughn v. Camp ruling is the reason for all litigation which has followed.
Post told us today that while the Straughn v. Camp court was mistaken about the nature and duration of local governmental promises for tax exemption on beach leaseholds, he suspects it was the fault of lawyers who argued the case at the time.

"They didn't have the historical documents that have since come to light," he says. "It's little wonder. It took me over a year to unearth them."

Just one of the surprises Post has dug up from the historical record are minutes from a May 29, 1946 "special joint meeting" of the Santa Rosa Island Authority board and Escambia county commissioners. Those minutes show that the federal government's original intention actually was to deed Santa Rosa Island over to the county without restrictions.

It was at the request of the SRIA and Escambia County commissioners that language was added to the federal legislation, and eventually the deed itself, stipulating that Santa Rosa Island could be "leased or not leased but [was] never to be otherwise disposed of or conveyed by it." That language was drafted at the joint SRIA-County commission meeting and sent off to then-U.S. Congressman Bob Sikes. The congressman then amended his draft bill, as requested, and it became law shortly thereafter.

What effect this long-forgotten fact may have on the current deeds-for-taxes debate is any one's guess. But at least we can say, thanks to William Post's thorough research, that the pretense is over: 'poor little Escambia County' didn't have the deed restriction against re-selling beach property imposed on it by the big, bad wolf of the United States government. The county asked for the restriction so it could lease the land but not sell it.

Like a mugger with a conscience who fears he can't stop himself, maybe the commissioners of that time were, in effect, scrawling a note in bright red lipstick on the deed: "Stop us before we kill the environment again."

It's a good thing the feds listened. It's also good that William Post is here to record what happened afterwards.

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Happy reading!

Amplification Dept.

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