A second look urged for RESTORE scoring

Susan Feathers spoke at a special meeting of the Escambia County Commission to discuss scoring projects for RESTORE Act funds on April 16.

Although agreeing in principle with a scoring system to award $150 million in oil-spill related fine money, Escambia County Commissioners Thursday stopped short of accepting the plan.

At a special meeting at the Pensacola Bay Center, commissioners asked the nine-member RESTORE Act Advisory Committee to take another look at how to maintain the system while giving more weight to tourism promotion.

The Advisory Committee has spent the past two years getting input from the public on how and where the anticipated fine money should be spent.

In February the committee unveiled their findings, and recommended a 98 out of 100 point scoring system with equal weight given three main categories: environment, infrastructure, and economic development.

“Our job is not to make decisions on the projects, but to give you the tools to make wise decisions,” said committee chairwoman and Gulf Power executive Bentina Terry.

Members of the Escambia RESTORE Act Advisory Committee at a special Escambia County Commission meeting on April 16.

Members of the Escambia RESTORE Act Advisory Committee at a special Escambia County Commission meeting on April 16.

Commissioner Grover Robinson Thursday asked the group, established by commissioners in October 2012, to give more consideration to a scoring system that will take into account projects eligible for matching state and federal grants.

“I think we need to… ask the Advisory Committee to look at tourism, and also consider the matching side of this, so that we can leverage the RESTORE dollars for the projects we approve,” Robinson said.

Robinson made a motion to that effect; it was approved 5-0.

The issue of not specifically including “tourism” in the overall scoring system was an “oversight,” said Keith Wilkins, director of Escambia County Community & Environmental Department.

The issue of leveraging the fine money came up early in the meeting Thursday when county consultant Brian Griffin told commissioners any dollars the county receives under the RESTORE Act in effect are considered “federal grants” by the U.S. Treasury.

As a result, certain RESTORE-funded projects can be “leveraged” with other state and federal grants.

With that knowledge, commissioners began questioning whether the scoring system emphasized the prospects for grants-leveraging enough.

That subject also prompted comments from the audience, including those from retired University of West Florida researcher Susan Feathers.

“I’m very thankful Mr. Griffin brought up leveraging RESTORE dollars,” said Feathers.

RESTORE_meeting_crowdOther audience members, including Pensacola City Council member Sheri Myers, urged commissioners that when considering RESTORE-funded projects take into account whether it adheres to the laws and regulations under the Americans with Disability Act.

Under the federal RESTORE legislation, county commissions in the five Gulf states (Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas) affected by the April 20, 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

In advocating a stronger weight for tourism, Robinson, one of the leading proponents of the RESTORE Act, reminded commissioners that the “T” in RESTORE refers to “Tourist.”

RESTORE is an acronym for Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies.

During Thursday’s meeting commissioners did not give the committee a specific deadline for incorporating tourism and matching grant considerations.

However, County Administrator Jack Brown said the county is looking at the June-to-August timeframe for approving the first phase of RESTORE projects.