Port St. Joe Commissioner Scott Hoffman needed more than an hour to bring even one vote to his side and after 80 minutes he received two, the slim majority Hoffman needed.
Hoffman spent much of that time filibustering against what seemed a certainty for most of Tuesday’s regular meeting of the City Commission; four commissioners approving an interlocal agreement with the Board of County Commissioners.
That agreement, which generated not a word of comment when approved last Thursday during a special meeting of the BOCC, was a late Friday afternoon addition to the City Commission agenda.
The only public discussion of the agreement, which involves millions of dollars, came Tuesday after more than an hour of discussion among commissioners.
The only indication such a deal might be in the offing at all was a verbal exchange between board members and county staff during a Port St. Joe Redevelopment Agency (the CRA in question) meeting last month.
In extremely broad strokes, the agreement’s chief focus is the existing CRA which is due to sunset in 2020.
The city, by a 5-0 vote, Hoffman noted, is pursuing a 30-year extension of that original CRA.
In exchange for dropping the pursuit of that pursuit, which the county has indicated it would challenge, and agreeing to a 20-year prohibition on any future CRA, the county would make a series of payments, which would amount to roughly $1.5 million to the city 2022-2023.
The difference between the county’s proposal and current payments the county must pay the CRA by law each year, based on the current level of payments, is north of $4.4 million should the city receive a 30-year extension.
The CRA and the annual payment, which the BOCC only began to provide when pressed by CRA officials after more than half the original 30-year CRA term had elapsed, has long been a thorn for county commissioners.
And, Hoffman wondered, why were city commissioners so eager to accept what amounted to a “buy-out” proposal from the county which would cost the city money in the long run?
“This is not an interlocal agreement, this is a buyout,” Hoffman said. “Who created this? “Where does this come from?”
Even more astounding to Hoffman, he said, was that his fellow commissioners were willing to approve the agreement without all parties that would be impacted, particularly city business owners, having a chance to weigh in.
“We are not being transparent at all,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman, by the time commissioners were winding down to a path forward, noted that every one of the public speakers, six during a sparsely-attended lunchtime meeting, favored delaying a final vote for a workshop.
But, initially, Hoffman’s motion that the agreement be tabled pending a workshop or town hall meeting failed for lack a second.
Commissioner David Ashbrook, who said he negotiated the agreement with county staff in his role as chair of the PSJRA board, which is comprised of the five commissioners and two at-large members, suggested only a few details needed to be edited and he was ready to vote.
Ashbrook said there would be a lengthy list of federal and state grants and loans to assist on hurricane recovery, access to which will depend on the city having matching funds.
The deal with the county was a way to get that matching money now.
“We need the money now,” said Commissioner Bret Lowry. “We need leverage. We need those matching funds.”
In addition, Ashbrook said, state lawmakers are cooling on local governments establishing CRAs and the future of any extension was in doubt.
“The need today is greater than our need will be in 30 years,” Ashbrook said. “This is a gamble either way.”
Mayor Bo Patterson said he had had numerous discussions with county officials (one striking aspect to the 80 minutes of debate was how many private discussions about the agreement had taken place) and he placed his trust in county officials.
“I welcome their money,” Patterson said, adding the city would be foolish not to take it.
But several speakers disagreed with the clear wishes of the majority to vote to approve the agreement with so little public scrutiny and review.
An agreement, several noted, which still had some details to be filled in, including a payment schedule and concerns about fire coverage.
(Part of the agreement is funding for a fire truck to the city, which has already nearly paid for the vehicle, Hoffman noted, as well as an extension of city primary coverage language. That language is to be amended.)
“Why pass something (for which) you’ve never seen all the details?” wondered Greg Johnson. “All property owners in the district should have (the time to review the agreement).”
Lynn Costin Marshall said she operated or owned four businesses in Port St. Joe and added the agreement may very well benefit the city; the city should workshop the agreement just to satisfy her mind.
David Warriner said he didn’t comprehend the logic, particularly since the city would not be receiving any significant funds from the county beyond obligated payments for three more years.
“Voting to tell the county not to spend money in the city when they are lawfully required to makes no sense,” Warriner said. “And predicting the future, predicting what will happen (on the state level) is a fool’s game.
“Y’all aren’t bankrupt. You are a vibrant city with great potential for growth. You are crazy to do this. That you aren’t even going to have a workshop is incredible.”
The back-and-forth came to a close with Ashbrook agreeing to step back from immediate passage in favor of a workshop, further stepping back that the workshop dealt only with how the money from the county would be spent, not the overall agreement.
Commissioner Eric Langston joined Ashbrook and Hoffman in voting for a workshop and tabling the agreement; Lowry and Patterson dissented.
The workshop will be held 6 p.m. ET March 4.