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    Categories: environmentgovernment

How to Spend Spill Money, Escambia Ponders Restoration Projects

by Jeremy Morrison

Although they didn’t agree on which particular restoration projects to pursue, Escambia County commissioners have decided to work toward a consensus in order to turn county staff loose on the design phases of a handful of the projects.

“I feel like we’re on the right path,” commented Commissioner Doug Underhill, predicting a “fairly smooth sailing process” moving forward.

The commissioners had just wrapped up a politely terse discussion during the Aug. 11 Committee of the Whole meeting. It began as a discussion about how best to leverage money the county is due to receive as a result of environmental penalties stemming from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, but wound up a back-and-forth about which local projects might eventually be funded and pursued.

“We should be focusing on the concept,” Chairman Grover Robinson stressed, attempting to redirect the commissioners to the presentation on the agenda.

Escambia County Commission Chairman Grover Robinson

That presentation outlined the process by which the county will arrive at a Multi Year Implementation Plan. The MYIP prioritizes potential projects and is necessary when the county wants to seek matching outside funds to pair with its $70 million allotment of oil spill money.

The MYIP involves jumping off on a few of the projects that have been proposed as contenders for restoration funds. The process encompasses research, a public review and comment period and design, or phase one, work on each project.

The selection of these projects is what raised some concerns among the commissioners. Robinson had suspected it might be a sensitive subject.

“I was asked to pick projects and I said, ‘I am not picking any projects,’” the chairman said, explaining that the selected projects were chosen because they topped the rankings of the county’s RESTORE Act advisory committee, which vetted project proposals submitted to the county.

The three projects selected had each topped a particular ranking category during the RESTORE advisory committee process. The committee, charged with advising the commissioners on how best to spend Escambia’s oil spill restoration money, had ranked potential projects according to their benefits in three categories: environmental, infrastructure, and economic development.

The selected projects were OLF8 commerce park improvements (economic development), Eleven Mile Creek restoration work (environmental) and the Forest Creek Apartment Complex acquisition and demolition (infrastructure). Each carried a price tag for the design phase work, ranging from $635,000 for the commerce park project in the north of the county to more than a couple of million for the phase one work on the apartment complex project.

Commissioner Steven Barry wondered if it was a good idea to pony up phase one money on projects that might not ever get full funding. And Underhill immediately sounded the alarm about the specific project selection.

“The three projects right now, I see major red blocks in the risk matrix, he said, requesting that staff do more preliminary work before the commissioners settled on

Commissioner Doug Underhill

projects to get serious about.

Robinson repeatedly stressed that the commissioners should not get distracted with which projects they were instructing staff to get started with, but rather focus on the process of whipping projects up for inclusion in the MYIP. The chairman, who has been neck-deep in oil spill restoration affairs since shortly after the 2010 spill occurred, said he had “spent too much time of my life” working towards leveraging what has boiled down to $70 million in restoration funding into as much money as possible.

“I would be more than happy to stay away from controversial projects,” Robinson said.

The commissioners appeared split as to which potential restoration projects they preferred to pursue. Underhill suggested a public access project in Perdido Key and improvements at the Port of Pensacola. Commissioner Wilson Robertson voiced his support for the commerce park project and Commissioner Lumon May said he felt comfortable with a project aimed at restoring Bayou Texar and Carpenter Creek.

Barry suggested that the county concentrate on projects that had “lateral value,” meaning ones that would eventually move beyond the phase one stage with or without RESTORE funding.

Robinson suggested that instead of throwing the proposed projects into the MYIP process, the commissioners let the county staff know which projects top their personal list and then return for a second conversation on the matter in September.

“Nobody’s name is attached to the project,” Robinson said, explaining that the commissioners would not know which one of them had selected which projects to be discussed.

The commissioners agreed to forward their project lists to county staff. Once a selection of projects is determined, county staff will begin the respective phase ones in their effort to leverage as much as $70 million of restoration funds Escambia expects to see over the course of 15 years.

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View Comments (2)

  • Wait, what? The advisory committee selected project based on selection criteria for each category of environmental, economic development, and infrastructure. People submitting the projects know that they might not be able to funding beyond phase one. I don't follow why the commission just doesn't submit the suggested projects for the MYIP. What was the point of the advisory committee? I can't wait to see what transpires in September.

  • The commissioners will and do know the names of the projects that were submitted. Each group made a presentation. Which in turn will decide what projects get funded via backroom deals and full pockets of kick backs.