The Wonderful World of Government Bonds, Annual Budgets and The Never-Ending Bridge Toll.

Maybe it’s being tolled to and from work. Perhaps it hinges on the belief that The Mid-Bay Bridge should have been paid off years ago. 

In fact, one Okaloosa Commissioner said last week “If it was my house, it would have been paid off by now.”

Either way, plenty of people have developed ire for The Mid-Bay Bridge Authority’s place in Okaloosa County Infrastructure. 

A decision by the Okaloosa County Board of County Commissioners at their regular meeting on May 17th may set the wheels of change in motion for the bridge. Those changes could affect everyone that uses it. 

A bridge over a body of water
The Mid-Bay Bridge

An Unprecedented Move

It’s not happened before. 

The Okaloosa County Board of County Commissioners failed to approve The Mid-Bay Bridge Authority’s budget at the commission meeting on Tuesday, May 17th.

Commissioner Paul Mixon made the motion to open the discussion of passage or rejection of The Authority’s budget to discussion. However, the motion to approve the budget outright died for a lack of a second. 

No one at the meeting immediately knew what this failure to approve the budget would mean. Therefore, when the motion died for the lack of a second, the board looked to the county attorney for guidance on the matter. 

More on that in a minute. 

While it may lead to changes in The Authority – it doesn’t mean the bridge is going to shut down. 

“The bridge isn’t going to fall into the bay tomorrow,” said Commissioner Nathan Boyles. Boyles has voted against the approval of the bridge’s budget each year for the last four years. “[The Florida Department of Transportation] maintains the bridge. Another state agency collects tolls. At this point, I think The Authority sees to it that the bondholders are paid. That is their primary reason for existence. I think it’s a bureaucracy that can be collapsed at this point and likely results in a more efficient operation,” said Boyles.

Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel said that she has petitioned lawmakers in Tallahassee to change the current approval situation. 

She says either making The Authority 100% independent of the county, increasing the Okaloosa County Board of County Commissioners’ ability to approve or reject items in the budget, or handing it over entirely to the state legislature are better options than the current arrangement. 

All in all, commissioners Boyles, Ketchel and Goodwin expressed the most frustration with the current setup between the county and The Mid-Bay Bridge Authority. 

People sitting at a dais
Okaloosa County Commissioners in Session

Okaloosa County Commissioners

Robert’s Rules of Order

At one point during the discussion before the failure of the motion, Commissioner Ketchel reminded Chairman of the County Commission Mel Ponder that he could pass the gavel to the vice-chairman, Commissioner Boyles, and make a second to move the agenda item to the discussion phase. 

Under Roberts Rules of Order, which is used by most legislative bodies (like county commissions and state and national legislatures) to determine how stuff gets done in a setting like the commission’s, you need a motion and a second to discuss taking action on an item that is on the agenda. 

Commissioner Ponder, who served in the Florida State House on several committees with the same structure as the Okaloosa County Commission, thanked his fellow commissioner for the information – but did not second the initial motion. 

Ketchel, who could have also seconded the motion regarding approval of The Mid-Bay Bridge Authority’s budget, did not second the motion, either. 

Commissioner Ponder then seconded a motion for further discussion on The Mid-Bay Bridge Authority’s relationship with the county through follow-on discussions between the two parties to determine next steps. 

Paul Mixon, who represents the northeastern portion of the County, asked county staff to work with The Authority to determine whether or not The Authority could recharter to change how it is governed and allow for the county to have some say in the construction of its budget. 

Carolyn Ketchel, Commissioner for District Two, added that she would like a commissioner to sit on the board of The Authority as a liaison in the future. 

The Authority 

Mid Bay Bridge Logo
Mid Bay Bridge Logo

The State Government of Florida created The Mid-Bay Bridge Authority in the 1980s to construct and manage the Mid-Bay Bridge. 

Construction on the bridge ended in 1995 – then the structure opened to the traveling public. 

At that time, the bridge, built with money from both government and private industry, owed money to bondholders. Recently, the bridge took out another $10 million in debt in order to fix up engineering failure on the bridge’s tendons.  

The Authority’s oversight is provided by five people appointed by Governor Ron DeSantis. In addition to the board – The Authority has two employees: an executive director and an administrative assistant. Various state agencies take care of the operational functions of The Authority. 

Executive Director of The Mid-Bay Bridge Authority, Van Fuller, attended the meeting and attempted to address the concerns of the commission.  

“There’s a lot of discussion about the bridge,” Fuller said from the podium, “But the system is much more than just the bridge. It’s a bypass around the city of Niceville and it’s an approach from US 98. All of that was [constructed] with broad political support from the commissioners who were in place at the time.” Fuller continued, “Folks came to The Authority for these improvements and the taking on of debt to do those things. The [Mid-Bay] Bridge [debt] would have been paid off with the original bond issue next year (in 2023). But, the consolidation of debt took care of the improvements that took place over time.”

As of this publishing on Tuesday May 17th, a representative for The Mid-Bay Bridge Authority has not returned a phone call request for comment. We will update this section with more information when we receive it.

So, what happens now?

According to Okaloosa County Commissioner Trey Goodwin says there is no precedent for what happens next, now that the county has not approved The Authority’s budget. The Florida Law that governs the relationship between The Mid-Bay Bridge Authority and the county.

Nothing changes – for the moment. But this decision could lead to a significant change in how the bridge and Spence Parkway are managed. Both agencies’ attorneys will confer and plot a course forward. The trek through the public policy jungle happens to serve as a journey Commissioner Goodwin thinks will be beneficial for the residents and visitors alike.

“I suspect this will ultimately be a path towards a new type of relationship,” Commissioner Goodwin said, “one where either the Board of County Commissioners is more engaged from an operational standpoint, or one where The Authority truly is treated as an independent answering to the state, but not to the county.”

If the Board of County Commissioners, a board that is directly elected by the people of Okaloosa County, were to maintain involvement with The Authority – more than likely, the board would have a literal seat at the table on the board. 

“I think that would give the county some insight and influence over things such as future projects, tolling rates, things of that nature, things that are currently outside the overview of the Board of County Commissioners,” Commissioner Goodwin said, “This might give the Board of County Commissioners a little bit more insight. Frankly, we’re the elected officials elected locally by our constituents, many of whom use these roadways. And so it might provide an opportunity to have a perceived additional voice from the citizens in that process. So that’s one potential outcome. The other outcome is possible that The Bridge Authority is then further made independent from the Board of County Commissioners.”

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