Okaloosa’s Complacent County Commission

Pete Blome addressed the Board of County Commissioners for Okaloosa County 17 May 2011 at the meeting where the budget for the Mid Bay Bridge Authority, a Florida Special District, gets reviewed and approved by the Commissioners IAW Law 2000-411. The County Commissioners in the past have routinely approved the bridge budget without public discussion, and they did so here as well by unanimous vote.

It is Pete’s opinion this Authority had the wrong financial plan from its inception. Instead of paying off bridge infrastructure and passing the savings to the bridge users, the Mid Bay Bridge Authority has steadily added an average $10 million a year in debt since its creation in 1994. Toll have steadily gone up, and when a large expansion project, called the bypass, is finished tolls may rise as high as $9 round trip to get from Crestview to Destin. Like the proverbial cash cow, bridge users have been set up to pay high tolls forever.

Pete isn’t the only one who sees the poor planning of the Mid Bay Bridge Authority. Fitch’s Bond service recently gave Bridge Bonds a BBB rating, one step above junk.

The Okaloosa Board of County Commissioners allowed Pete 3 minutes to address them.

Thank you, sirs, for allowing me to speak.

Since I have only a few moments, I would like to ask this board to consider a few questions about the Mid Bay Bridge Authority that were not brought up at this meeting.

How does an increased toll across the bridge, as high as $9 when the bypass road is complete, help anyone in Okaloosa County? It doesn’t.

When will the bridge debt be paid off? Never.

Who believes automobile traffic is going to increase to levels to make this Bridge Authority solvent?

It has gone down for 5 years in row. I certainly don’t.

If this Authority can’t remain solvent, what are you, as the approving authority of the Bridge Budget, going to do about it? Will it be to simply pass off the costs of the bridge to the whole state of Florida as Senator Gaetz has suggested?

This board has routinely rubberstamped budgets submitted by the Bridge Authority. Who has this served? Certainly not the citizens of Okaloosa.

The Mid Bay Bridge Authority is not a minor matter. It will represent $350 million dollars in debt before it is finished. Yearly tolls for a regular user will be greater than most people’s property taxes. One out of ten Okaloosans need this bridge for their livelihood, and they are purposefully being bled dry by government through bad planning and apathy.

The MBBA thought about everything except the people it is meant to serve.

And this course of events has been enabled by this board.

Thank you.

A Loaded Hummer Stretch Limo

On the surface, the Mid Bay Bridge Authority bypass looks like a good idea.

In place of a two lane residential road first laid down in the 1950’s, the bypass user will have a modern highway complete with automated toll booths promising a speedy ride from highway 85 all the way to the Mid Bay Bridge. If you use the Sunpass system, you will never have to take your wallet out to pay a toll. It will look and feel like progress.

Of course, it isn’t.

Throughout its entire life the Mid Bay Bridge Authority has been increasing tolls while increasing its debt, even as vehicle traffic was going down. They average $10 million in new debt every year since they were created. For the last four years vehicle traffic on the bridge has been declining, and I think this trend will continue. Meanwhile, the Board of County Commissioners have been rubberstamping the budgets of the MBBA with not even a minute’s worth of debate, even though the law (Laws of Florida, Ch 2000-411, Section 6, part (c)) says they have the ultimate power of budget review, change and approval.

To my mind, this is all wrong, and not what government is supposed to be about. Government, when it is necessary, should strive to provide the most public service at the least public cost.

The best thing government planners could have done for Okaloosa was to plan to pay off debts and pass on the savings to the citizens. The bridge toll could cost as little as $1 per day (operations, maintenance and a rainy day fund) if there were no debt service to pay. That would really help the people who need the bridge in good economic times or bad. Instead, this bridge and bypass system is going to require high tolls forever.

When I say high, I mean eye popping high. When all is said and done with the bypass, a bridge that cost $67 million dollars to build in 1994 will have more than $350 million in debt laid on it, and that doesn’t even include future costs for ideas like a second span. It will cost you $5.50 to travel the bypass and bridge roundtrip. That’s $1430 per year for a regular commuter, which is higher than a lot of folks property taxes. There is no plan to ever pay off this project, or even to reduce the tolls.

In April of 2010, MBBA Executive Director Jim Vest told me at least $42 million in contracts were already awarded for road construction. Robert Kellner, Project Principal Engineer, told the Okaloosa Citizens Alliance that the process of awarding contracts to finish future portions of the project have been speeded up to take advantage of decreased construction costs during this recession. It was recently announced an additional $48.7 million dollars in contracts have been awarded. Terminating all contracts already awarded would probably add millions in penalty costs that bridge users would ultimately have to pay in extra tolls, but finishing the project will cost even more millions that bridge users will still also have to pay.

In other words, stopping the project will cost everyone more, and completing the project will cost everyone more. There is no happy ending to this tale.

It seems nobody thought “What if bridge traffic goes down? Can we still afford this?”

It seems nobody asked “Why don’t we just pay down bridge debt and make it cheap for people to use?”

It seems no County Commissioner or the MBBA had a clear vision of what government is supposed to be about. They were sent out to buy a Ford Fiesta and came home with a loaded Hummer stretch limo, payments courtesy of John Q. Public.

Exactly how is the MBBA going to pay the debt service on $350 million in construction debt with fewer cars using the bridge? How can they make this work without increasing tolls again in the future?

They can’t. Another magnificent folly brought to you by unlimited government.