In an unprecedented move, The Okaloosa County Board of County Commissioners exercised its right to cut $72,000 in lobbying and advertising from the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority’s budget for Fiscal Year 22-23.
The plan to cut these items, led by Okaloosa County Commissioner Nathan Boyles, would end payments for three billboards. The elimination of the billboards, which advertise that “the Mid-Bay Bridge is the fastest way to Destin,” will save $42,000 from the yearly budget alone.
An additional $30,000, used to pay a Tallahassee lobbying firm the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority has worked with since 2009, got cut out as well.
The Okaloosa Commissioners also discussed their plans to ask the state legislatures to make the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority an independent district, separate from the Okaloosa County Board of County Commissioners. Ultimately, the commission decided to table that decision for several months to plot out the best possible course for the board to take.
The actions by the Okaloosa Board of County Commissioners in the June 21st commission meeting have some concrete and several more nebulous meanings for commuters and bridge-users. There are essentially three options that the commission will eventually have to choose from.
In option one – nothing happens. The Florida State Legislature looks at a possible request and decides to do nothing. Alternatively, but much less likely based on the board’s conversation today, the commission decides to let sleeping dogs lie. This decision would mean that a semi-independent Mid-Bay Bridge Authority, which operates separately from the commission – but still must get budget approval from the commission – continues. This arrangement would stay in place until the bond debt on the bridge is retired. At that point, the bridge would revert to the state department of transportation’s ownership and operate like any other roadway under state control.
In option two, the Florida State Legislature Passes a bill, which, when signed by the governor, severs the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority from the Okaloosa Board of County Commissioners and gives hiring, spending, and operational power over to a newly reconstituted bridge authority. The authority would be independent of the Okaloosa County Board of County Commissioners.
This option could go one of two ways. In one scenario – similar to the setup that is in place now – the governor would nominate five people to the authority on his own.
Commissioner Boyles had a dim view on this option. He says his chagrin with the option comes from the fact that the board would be an unelected group responsible to the state government in Tallahassee, not the people in Okaloosa County.
“The American system is a system of checks and balances; that’s what keeps the whole thing functioning. Through the ups and downs, the ins and outs, it’s checks and balance system, it keeps functioning. Somebody, I think, probably a pretty smart person, put a check and balance in this system. And it was the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority appointed votes not elected, had to come every year and stand in front of this board and present their budget, and we have to examine it, and then we have to increase or decrease it, and then we have to approve it. It’s a very public process – I grant it can be a painful process, ” said Boyles.
Alternatively, the board could request that the state legislature create an independent authority and allow the people to elect board members. “It would be like the independent taxing districts that handle fire [control] in most of the county,” commissioner Paul Mixon said.
Option three is the most volatile of the options – because of what it would mean for a government’s bottom line.
According to the authority’s balance sheet, it has about $296 million in assets and about $283 million in debt.
If the state legislature were to dissolve the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority – which is in its purview to do, all of those assets and debt would have to go somewhere – either to the state or to Okaloosa County. Responsibility for maintenance and upkeep isn’t cheap on the bridge either – evidenced by the fact that the bridge continues to spend millions of dollars to keep it from falling into the Choctawhatchee Bay every year
The Mid-Bay Bridge Authority was formed in the 80s to, well, build the Mid-Bay Bridge. The authority was a public-private partnership with power from the state legislature via a special act to issue a bond, build a bridge and collect tolls.
Why does the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority still exist? It’s a question many residents regularly ask as they pass through the toll booth on the north side of the bridge, pay their toll, and continue on to work or shopping. After all, the bridge has almost been around for 30 years. If it is anything like a mortgage, we should be ending the terms of that loan, right?
Well, it’s not so simple – Van Fuller, the Executive Director for the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority, says that further bonds were taken out after the initial construction of the bridge to build roads like Spence Parkway and Danny Weurful Way. Those bond issues have lives that extend past the initial public-private partnership agreement on the bridge and have to be paid off. Then there is maintenance.
Mid-Bay Bridge Executive Director Van Fuller was on hand at the Okaloosa County Commision meeting on June 21st, as was Chairman of the Authority, Gordon Fornell, to answer the commission’s questions.
Commissioner Nathan Boyles voted alone against the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority’s budget between 2018 and 2021 for several reasons. Many times, though, he would cite as an example of wasteful spending the billboards which stood on the side of I-10 and told people that “The Mid-Bay Bridge is the quickest way to get to Destin.”
Fuller agreed with the Boyles statements on principle but argued that the data said otherwise – according to information he received from other tolling authorities.
“We did some analysis or had some analysis from getting out of outdoor [billboard] advertising for both the naval museum over Pensacola and the Beach Express, which is a toll road that goes from I-10 down to Orange Beach. And when they took down the outdoor advertising, they both significantly reduced revenues caused by less attendance and less use of equipment. So that was the benchmark that they use when they looked at it and decided to sustain it for this,” Fuller said.
Fuller argued that the monies for a lobbyist also served a public purpose on behalf of the citizens of Okaloosa County. He argued that the lobbyists were the eyes and ears of the authority – and the people. He argued that the lobbyists in Tallahassee ensure that nothing surprises the authority in terms of legislation – and also allows them to quickly pull the levers of power to get results that are needed quickly – especially during disasters like emergencies.
“So the best example I can give you there is during the lab was Hurricane Sally, we got the evacuation order that got bogged down in the in the emergency plans,” Fuller remembered. “And so our representative was able to get straight to the DOT secretary and within minutes, the evacuation order was approved by the governor.. So, that was just an example of some value added. With that perspective, it’s been good. It’s cost-effective, just like you would have, you’d have representation at the federal level and in other places. This is just a representation of the state,” said Fuller.
The Commission will meet again on this topic at their second meeting in August – on the 16th. They will have the chance to determine what request they will make of the state legislature at that time.
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