I am one member of a five person board. The opinions I express on this forum are mine only, and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Escambia County Staff, Administrators, Employees, or anyone else associated with Escambia County Florida. I am interested in establishing this blog as a means of additional transparency to the public, outreach to the community, and information dissemination to all who choose to look. Feedback is welcome, but because public participation is equally encouraged, appropriate language and decorum is mandatory.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Laws and Regulatory Language Can be Changed, Amended, or Modified--If we Have the Will to Do It!

Whether we are talking about what is allowed in terms of spending bed-tax revenues, how public sector advocacy associations are funded with public dollars, or what regulations control access/egress to public highway rest areas----Sometimes when we are trying to get things done we run into a regulatory or legislative brick wall.  That's when, if the issue is important enough, logical enough, and supported enough-- you work to have the particularly troubling rule, regulation, or law amended, modified, revised, or repealed.  

Because laws and regulatory language can be changed, amended, or modified.

Let's explore three examples/Issues/problems that have been solved or that could have been solved if appropriate language changes were sought or were achieved.  Accessing public rest areas, extracting a percentage of bed tax revenue for public safety, and changing the law regarding how public organization dues are funded.  Let's look at all three.


I was involved personally in a very relevant example of this over the span of two years from 2014-2016.  Florida law at that time did not permit individual school board members from pulling their individual share of high-priced dues membership money from the then "only" professional organization for school board members, the Florida School Boards Association.  The dues ran about $22,000.00 per year per 5 member school board, a price that many of us felt was exorbitant.  For a number of good reasons, with persistence, lots of hard work, and the formation of a coalition for change-- the relevant statutes were changed two years later in 2016 to allow individual board members to fund their choice of support organizations individually and/or to withhold the money altogether to re-direct these resources back to the classrooms of local districts.  Nobody gave us a shot of getting this changed, but a small group of us worked hard, spent lots of time in Tallahassee, and we got it accomplished and blew up a publicly funded monopoly, thereby injecting consumer choice into what was up to  that time an 85 year monopoly within this niche advocacy business.


Another law was being modified in that same 2016 timeframe over in Tallahassee--having to do with a different issue--focused on allowable uses of the tourist development tax for counties and municipalities.

Okaloosa, Walton, and Bay Counties to our east each have a significant tourist and spring break footprint in their respective counties yearly--and this tourism industry was costing the citizens of these counties an inordinate share of their financial resources for the public safety necessary to support these visitors and tourists.  So a group of lawmakers, led by Rep. Brad Drake, sought to

 change Florida law to allow a small fraction of this bed-tax revenue to be re-directed back into public safety programs to support these tourist related events and activities (to help fund law enforcement, lifeguards, EMS and Fire Services related to the tourist areas.) Although the law statewide failed (and was vigorously opposed by the Hotel and Restaurant Lobby)--Rep. Drake was able to have the law modified to allow for use of bed tax for public safety expenses in Okaloosa, Walton and Bay Counties.  (This is the impetus for my Blue Penny proposal to help save money from our general fund to help offset our public safety expenditures at the beaches and help with our budget stalemate with the sheriff).  If the counties to our East could get this done--why can't we?  The law can be modified, it can be done if we have the will to do it.  (Read the way this law was carefully crafted to only pertain to these three counties Okaloosa, Walton, and Bay, due to the language used....) Here is the portion of the Florida law (120.0104(5)c.) as it was crafted to allow the use of bed tax revenue to offset public safety expenditures:

"(c) A county located adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean, except a county that receives revenue from taxes levied pursuant to s. 125.0108, which meets the following criteria may use up to 10 percent of the tax revenue received pursuant to this section to reimburse expenses incurred in providing public safety services, including emergency medical services as defined in s.401.107(3), and law enforcement services, which are needed to address impacts related to increased tourism and visitors to an area. However, if taxes collected pursuant to this section are used to reimburse emergency medical services or public safety services for tourism or special events, the governing board of a county or municipality may not use such taxes to supplant the normal operating expenses of an emergency medical services department, a fire department, a sheriff’s office, or a police department. To receive reimbursement, the county must:
1. Generate a minimum of $10 million in annual proceeds from any tax, or any combination of taxes, authorized to be levied pursuant to this section;
2. Have at least three two municipalities; and
3. Have an estimated population of less than 225,000 325,000, according to the most recent population estimate prepared pursuant to s. 186.901, excluding the inmate population."

So the minor tweaks to this language that would allow Escambia to pull back a portion of the bed tax to offset our tourist-related expenditures--- just like Okaloosa, Walton and Bay counties do right now---would be fairly simple--as I have indicated above....But do we have the will to do it?  We could levy a 5th cent, generate an additional $1.5 Million to generate more tourist stays while also generating an additional $1 Million dollars for local public safety reimbursements--all paid for by out of town visitors.  (Escambia currently levy's only 4 cents...the rest of the state from Orlando southward collects the full 6 cents allowed by law.  Are we leaving money on the table.....uh, yes.)


And finally, as it pertains to Federal Regulations---these get modified all the time and for numerous sane, rational, and practical purposes. The process can be difficult, but it can be accomplished.  The issue du jour locally regarding Federal Regulations pertains to Navy Federal Credit Union's recent quest to obtain an egress lane out of the Florida Welcome Center.  For two years this was pursued until federal bureaucrats finally, resoundingly, emphatically, and publicly killed the plan, stating it would not conform to "Federal Regulations"  The relevant regulation 23 CFR 752.5 (d) reads but could be modified as follows:

"Access from the safety rest areas to adjacent publicly owned conservation and recreation areas may be permitted if access to these areas is only available through the rest area and if these areas or their usage does not adversely affect the facilities of the safety rest area. Egress only through a safety rest area, for a limited duration, for exigent circumstances, and only upon the recommendation, advice and consent of the relevant state's Governor and the Federal Secretary of Transportation, may be granted for period not to exceed 48 months provided all necessary considerations are fully addressed and required safety precautions are strictly enforced"

This is how this language could have been changed to allow for an egress point through the Florida welcome center--if such language change had been sought.  Imagine that, change the language and get the one-lane egress road out of NFCU's back property on a temporary basis to alleviate the traffic nightmare on 9-mile road until such time as the four lane project on 9-mile road gets completed and until such time as the Beulah Interchange (2 miles to the west) is constructed. This could have been a mechanism to make this happen but apparently this was not pursued.  This egress lane could have been constructed relatively inexpensively ($500,000-$1Million?) and it would have been something that could have been built rapidly and it would have pulled the excess NFCU traffic north (away) from 9-mile road which would have been better for everyone. 

Now, we have to wait for the Beulah Interchange 6-8 years down the road, and meanwhile another option to alleviate traffic quickly, a huge push is being made,  to build a $70 Million Dollar Overpass and additional lanes on 9-Mile road to address the traffic congestion issues....$70 Million and 4-6 years.  We will see how this all shakes out but sometimes having language changed is the most effective way to get the desired result--it happens all the time.


Anonymous said...

"You know you are flying over the target" lol. The PNJ article. The Beach guys want it to stay on the Beach (Bed Tax). One as usual no comment (smart guy) one will defer--one blames it all on the GOBs. I LOVE the way you don't mind looking into things and realize we do NOT have to do things just because "that's the way it has always been done". If you want change, go the proper channels and get the law changed if possible. Glad to have you as Chairman of the BOCC. Thanks

Jeff Bergosh said...

Anonymous--thank you for the kind words and kind assessment of my performance. I am much more self-critical though. I feel like closing loops in this position is incredibly difficult and doing what makes sense becomes a challenging endeavor. I will keep on keeping on, though, and hopefully we will see some progress in many areas in the months and years ahead--because one thing I do not ever do is quit or give up. Thanks again!