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Major transition looms for beach community, county (from the PNJ, 9/14/15)

09/14/2015 10:10 AM | Anonymous

(by Thomas St. Myer, Pensacola News Journal): 

Just three days after the Board of County Commissioners shed some light on its feelings about the uncertain future of the Santa Rosa Island Authority, the Pensacola Beach Advocates will host a meeting at 6 p.m. Monday in the sanctuary of Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church.

PBA President Benjamin Stevenson said the primary purpose for the meeting is to introduce beach residents to county directors and staff who will be responsible for providing services on the beach. The county is assuming control of the Public Safety and Public Works departments from the Santa Rosa Island Authority, effective Oct. 1.

The county commissioners discussed the transition of the two departments and the future of the Island Authority for about 18 minutes at their Thursday morning committee workshop.

Last month, the commissioners voted to cut the roughly $8 million Island Authority budget in half and slice commercial and residential lease fees in half in correlation with the county seizing control of the two departments. The county will fund the operational budgets for the departments with an escrow currently set aside for land taxes that holds about $7,600,000.

Stevenson complimented the Island Authority for its incredible care of the beach, but he is confident the county will hold up to its promise to maintain those lofty standards.

"County officials will succeed out there as well," Stevenson said.

The Island Authority will be down to three departments — financing, administration and lease, and environmental and developmental services. Lease fee collections will fund what remains of the governing branch.

Commissioner Wilson Robertson (District 1) questioned why the Island Authority is losing only half its funding, if the county is absorbing the expense for two departments that exceed half the previous SRIA budget.

"At what point do we look at half the budget and say, 'Well, you don't have half the responsibility and operations you used to have, so do you still need half the budget?'" Robertson said.

Chairman Steven Barry (District 5) said, "This board's going to make that decision. We can make that decision today."

The island falls in the district of Commissioner Grover Robinson IV. Robinson suggested to his fellow commissioners that they seek input about services from island residents over the next year or two before possibly cutting further into the Island Authority budget.

Robinson favors ultimately eliminating lease fees. If that occurs, the Island Authority will essentially lose all of its funding.

"First, we have to know if (beach residents) want to keep (the services) or not," Robinson said, "and if they want to keep them how are we going to fund them? Because there's going to need to be something separate than what we pay in generalized ad valorem taxes."

Despite the uncertainty, the Island Authority will remain a governmental branch for the foreseeable future.

The Florida legislature created the Island Authority by Special Act in 1947. The Special Act states the legislature is the only governmental branch with the power to disband the Island Authority. Robinson said eliminating the Island Authority is not among the items on the wish list submitted by the county to the legislature.

No matter what happens to the Island Authority, the commissioners agreed enhanced services will be required for the island.

"If you take a snap shot from today to five years from now, there's going to be a revenue generating structure of some sort that wraps the island for the enhanced services," Barry said. "Now probably in five years maybe there will not be lease fees, maybe a special taxing district, an MSTU (Municipal Service Taxing Unit) to the island.

"There's got to be something, then, that those revenues are staying and are specifically segregated to stay and enhance services on the island, and I don't know what exactly that will be called, when does that happen? I think we start that discussion."

Pensacola Beach Advocates meeting

•When: 6 p.m. Monday

•Where: Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church, 920 Via de Luna Drive, Pensacola Beach

•Purpose: For island residents to meet county directors and staff who will be responsible for providing services on the beach and to discuss the lease-fee reduction setup with Island Authority staff

For the original article, click here.

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