The Biggest Unseen Problem In The County

For years now, the Libertarians in Okaloosa County have been alone pointing out the fiscal mess that is the Mid Bay Bridge Authority.

It is a monstrous case of our County Commissioners shirking their supervisory duty according to the law, of a bridge authority thinking trees will grow forever to the sky, and then the state getting involved and spreading the pain over every taxpayer in Florida. Everyone in the Government was thinking of themselves, but no one was thinking about those that use the bridge. The bridge user will now have to pay, and pay, and pay.

But most people don’t see it. Non-bridge users don’t care. Neither does the Tea Party which is rapidly becoming a booster club to give venues for Republicans to focus on anything but what is important.

And it isn’t like the Bridge is a minor program. With the exception of federal projects at Eglin AFB, the Mid Bay Bridge is by far the single most expensive program going in the County. When the Bypass construction is finished, the Authority will have $350 million dollars in debt on its books. That’s a whopping debt for a county of 180,000 people.

Years ago our County Commission decided to exclude the MBBA from its financial statements because of accounting differences between the bridge and the County. Of course, this change did have the effect of making it look like the County had no role in the Bridge budget.

But the law, 2000-411, gave supervision of the operational budget to the Board of County Commissioners. That’s why they have to vote on a bridge budget every year. Mr. Jim Vest, Executive Director for the Bridge, has claimed that this is a mere $700,000 out of a $13 million dollar budget. He thinks nobody except the Bridge Authority, unsupervised by either the County or the Governor, should oversee the remainder. THe BCC goes along with it.

In any case, the BCC has routinely rubberstamped Bridge Authority Budgets with no discussion at all.

With such power, it is no surprise the Bridge Authority thought it could do whatever it wanted.

The Bridge was built cheaply and quickly in 1994. Instead of paying off debt, and passing the savings on to the public, the MBBA decided to continuously expand.

On average, they added $10 million in debt every year since construction started.

The new Bridge Bypass can only be fiscally sustainable if vehicle traffic kept growing every year. But traffic has gone down for five years in a row. I think it will decrease more in the future. The Authority will now have to use all of its current income just to pay interest on its debt. That means more toll hikes are coming in the future.

Don’t believe me? Fitch’s Bond Service rates MBBA bonds at an abysmal BBB, one step above junk for all the reasons I just spelled out.

According to Rep. Brad Drake of Defuniak Springs, we have MBBA Executive Directors, who are paid $200,000 a year for this poor performance.

Now the State of Florida is proposing to eliminate any toll discounts for Sunpass users as it prepares to take over operation of the bridge.

And we have the people of Okaloosa who will have to pay $9, roundtrip, forever, to get from Crestview to Destin.

Senator Gaetz says a State takeover will save the State of Florida $24 million dollars, but those are phony savings. The toll payer will see nothing but higher tolls.

A state takeover will only widen the pool of payers for the debt to all the people in Florida, who had nothing to do with this mess.

In the meantime, the Mid Bay Bridge becomes a never ending cash cow for the bottomless pit of Florida State finance.

There is probably no chance anymore that this money problem can be fixed. But, in my opinion, heads should roll over this matter.

The Board of Directors of the MBBA should be fired by the Governor.

The Executive Directors should be fired by the Board of Directors.

And the County Commissioners should be fired by the people of Okaloosa for making 18,000 people a day pay through the nose for government incompetence.