Escambia County Commission splits over FEMA funds for Pensacola beach renovation
A dispute of more than $ 3.3 million that Escambia County received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency led to a rare 3-2 split in the Escambia County commission on Thursday and has raised the question of how the county plans to pay for future beach renovation projects.
The issue was raised as the county committee was due to vote on a six-page budget amendment at its regular meeting on Thursday.
The $ 3.3 million in question was recognized as received from FEMA for payment for damage to Pensacola Beach during Hurricane Isaac in 2012.
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Previous versions of the budget predicted that the payment would repay the local options sales tax fund, but the budget was changed so that the money was spent on future beach renovations, apparently at the president’s request. of the Commission, Robert Bender, without discussion with the Council of County Commissioners.
Commissioner Steven Barry opposed the measure and noted that had he not noticed the change it would have passed without question.
“In my opinion, it’s not something that should be done that way,” Barry said. “This is a decision that should rest with the board of directors.”
Barry argued that the funds for the beach renovations following Hurricane Isaac had already been spent and that FEMA was reimbursing the county for these funds. Hurricane Isaac made landfall in Louisiana in August 2012, but Escambia County was eligible for FEMA reimbursement for storm surges on Pensacola Beach.
The county received the payment of $ 3.3 million in 2019.
Bender said that when the county received the payment, it immediately applied the $ 3.3 million to internal LOST fund loans to pay for the 2014 flood response without a committee vote, and the money did not never been spent on beach renovations.
Barry said Bender’s claim wasn’t true, but Bender insisted.
“The county hasn’t put a dime into beach renovations,” Bender said. “We received $ 1.3 million per year from the Island Authority, and that money was used to repay the loan we took out for the beach renovation.”
Bender said the county had submitted thousands of pages to FEMA claiming the funds would be used for beach renovations and would be penalized if FEMA did an audit and found out the funds went to the 2014 floods.
“With all due respect, you are not a lawyer or a CPA,” Barry said. “And the lawyers and CPAs who performed the review, who audited the transaction, did not share that opinion and saw no problem with how it was accounted for when the funds were received.”
Barry said there was no real financial difference between the county and the island authority.
“We are the authority on the island,” Barry said. “Sure, there is a separate agency, but at the end of the day who is going to fund the operations? We are going to fund the operations whether they have the money or not.”
Bender said if the county had earmarked the funds for another loan that the county gave to the Santa Rosa Island Authority to complete a $ 16 million beach renovation project in 2016, then it would be able to move on with FEMA, if not, he thinks the funds should be set aside for a future renovation project.
“Now we have to redo the beach renovations in a few years, and we need that money to make it happen,” Bender said.
Barry said if Bender had a concern about funds for future beach projects, he should have spoken to the full commission.
“If you want to have the ability to withdraw funds from your board of directors for beach renovations, that’s a decision that has to be made by the board,” Barry said. “It’s not a decision that has to be made in a county manager’s office, and just put those funds aside on your behalf that way.”
Barry put forward a motion for the $ 3.3 million to go into the LOST funds, which received a second from Commissioner Jeff Bergosh.
Commissioner Doug Underhill said he understood both arguments and believed the solution should be to seek clarification from FEMA if the county is applying the money correctly. Barry refused to accept Underhill’s suggestion and the committee voted 3-2 for Barry’s motion, with Bender and Underhill voting against.
After the vote, Bergosh said he was in favor of funding beach renovations and that he was not opposed to using sales tax funds as one of the many sources to achieve this.
“This beach generates a lot of LOSS, it generates a huge amount for our county,” said Bergosh. “But again, you have the Island Authority, they charge a fee on top of a fee. And you know, we’ve taken a lot of their maintenance responsibility, but you’ll find my support (for the beach renovation), bring something creative to reconnect with this beach. Something that survives the test of time. “
Jim Little can be reached at [email protected] and 850-208-9827.