(by Thomas St. Myer, pnj.com) The Board of County Commissioners passed two ordinances at its meeting Thursday night that will significantly impact Pensacola Beach, its inhabitants and the Santa Rosa Island Authority.
The commissioners voted unanimously for Escambia County to take over Public Works Department and Public Safety Department duties from the SRIA effective Oct. 1, and they unanimously approved an ordinance leave no trace (trash, chairs and the sort) on the beach.
The SRIA budget ordinance is the first step in stopping Pensacola Beach residents from continuing to pay both property tax and lease fees. Lease fees by SRIA will be reduced by a minimum of 50 percent.
“It ultimately benefits the County from the sense of trying to create parity and fairness in the way taxes and leases are administered on the island,” said Commissioner Grover Robinson IV (District-4). “… I think all of us agree that they shouldn’t be paying taxes on the land and leases at the same time.”
The SRIA budget of about $8 million will be slashed in half. An escrow currently set aside for land taxes that holds about $7,600,000 will fund the operational budgets for the Public Works and Public Safety Department.
Commissioner Wilson Robertson (District-1) questioned if the SRIA budget should be cut further. Commissioner Chairman Steve Barry (District-5) said that is worth discussing and recommended they discuss that possibility at a later date.
The $8 million annual budget is based solely on lease fees and covers expenses for lifeguards, services, salaries for 45 full-time staffers and 60 seasonal staffers, and hosting events such as Blue Angels Pensacola Beach air show and Bands on the Beach. Robinson said SRIA will still be in charge of those events next year, but the commissioners will potentially search for ways such as a resort tax to fund them in the future.
All SRIA Public Works and Public Safety Department employees will be transferred to the County with no loss of pay following an extension and acceptance of an offer of employment.
The commissioners said the plan is for all current employees to be retained.
“At this particular time, I don’t think that’s what envisioned from the County standpoint,” Robinson said of job losses. “Clearly all of the other individuals in those two departments are going to roll over to us.”
The County will assume responsibility of some governmental functions from SRIA.
The $200,000 paid by SRIA for fire services will be eliminated and absorbed by the Fire Municipal Services Benefit Unit (MSBU) fund. There will reportedly be no change in the Fire MSBU rate paid on Santa Rosa Island.
The $75,774 paid by SRIA for ambulance services will be eliminated, too. An EMS fund will reportedly absorb that charge.
SRIA Executive Director Buck Lee opposed the ordinance, but he spoke in favor of cutting lease fees for residents. Lee attended the commissioners meeting, but he left before the SRIA budget came up for discussion. He spoke with the commissioners about the ordinance Thursday morning at a SRIA budget meeting.
“My main concern is keeping it the same level of service that we had,” Lee said. “I think the commissioners want to see the same level with the lifeguards and cleanup. We start at 4:30 in the morning and don’t stop until 12:30 next morning.”
Only one resident spoke in the public forum about the SRIA budget, but the leave no trace ordinance attracted five public speakers to the microphone. All five residents voiced their support for the ordinance.
“Having been here for almost 15 years now, I’ve watched it gradually get worse and worse,” Gulf Breeze resident Jim Cox said. “… It’s exasperated in recent years. The more people see other people leaving on the beach then they’ll leave on the beach. It’s one of these things where my neighbor does it, I’ll do it.”
The leave no trace ordinance calls for personal property left on the beach after 7 p.m. to be removed and disposed of properly. The commissioners amended the ordinance to include that a deposit may be set as determined by the county administrator. The ordinance will take effect at the first of the year.
Santa Rosa Island budget ordinance
•Any new hires by SRIA for the Public Works or Public Safety Department prior to Oct. 1 will require approval of the county administrator or his designee.
•All county roads on Santa Rosa Island will be included in the County’s existing resurfacing program.
•The county administrator and county attorney are authorized to begin discussions with SRIA to jointly request a change to the Special Act in time for the next legislative session.
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