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Santa Rosa Island Authority Looks Ahead

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The Santa Rosa Island Authority has agreed to hire a community planner to prepare for a future where its primary source of funding could soon disappear.

This is a story with a lot of moving parts. We'll start by going back to this past March, when the Florida Supreme Court unanimously ruled that homes and condos on Pensacola Beach are subject to property taxes, called ad valorem taxes, even though they were built on land leased from the county. The owners of these homes were already paying taxes on the improvements to the property  as well as the annual lease fees to the county.

"When people came out to build their homes on Pensacola beach [they were told] all you had to do is lease the land, there won't be any ad valorem. Well  that's changed since 1947 to the recent time according to the courts."

That's Buck Lee, the Executive Director of the Santa Rosa Island Authority. There are still a few appeals pending in the court, and the authority has a big interest in the outcome of those cases.

Janice Gilley is a member of the Santa Rosa Island Authority board, "They are currently taxed on the imporvements to the property and what isn't clear is the taxes on their actual property and they also need to receive some title to their property which they currently aren't entitled to have."

Gilley also says that it may be a couple of years before the final outcome is known. But if the decision means that property leasers on the island become taxpaying property owners then there is another issue to contend with. 

Again, here's Buck Lee, "So if it does come to fruition that they are required to pay ad valorem on the land, you know, double taxation basically, wait, I'm paying a lease fee and ad valorem on the land? So we're looking at a way, if that happens, what can we do to make sure there is no double taxation."

And the most likely solution to that is the elimination of the annual lease fees paid to the county. That's where the Santa Rosa Island Authority comes in. Their budget comes from the lease fees. They get no money from the sales tax, bed tax or even the bridge tolls on Pensacola Beach. So the authority has unanimously agreed to hire a community planner to prepare for life without the fees.

"When that organization or company is chosen, they will come out and look at everything we do and hopefully they will come up with viable funding sources so that we can carry on what we do on Pensacola Beach," says Lee.

Gilley says, "When the residents are now paying taxes, the potential is for those taxes to go straight to Escambia County. When that happens then it's up to Escambia County how much they put back on the island to fund those services. So that means the budget of the Island Authority could potentially be zero if all the lease and service fees go away."

The authority hopes to have the community planner in place by January First, with their report and recommendations ready  by the summer of 2015. Janice Gilley says she saw the success the Mobile, Alabama region had using an outside consultant to help with their oil spill relief funds.

"I had a really good example to look at to say there are people out here who can help us figure out these issues. We don't have to figure them out all by ourselves, and to have folks to have a more macro perspective than we have will be helpful."

The Santa Rosa Island Authority has an annual budget of $8 million and performs many services along Pensacola Beach.

Lee says, "Our maintenance department has over a $4 million budget because we start working, cleaning the beach, at 4:30 in the morning and the last worker leaves at 12:30 in the morning, a little after midnight. So there's only about three hours a day that we don't have someone out there cleaning up the beach, cleaning up the parking lots, emptying the garbage cans, and all that. Then we have our lifeguards, public safety, at a little over $3 million.  We started out about 10 years ago when there were about 27 drownings between Gulf Shores and Panama City on a Labor Day and we knew something had to be done and that's when the Island Authority went forward and we have a great lifeguard system now."

And in addition to the life guards and the beach maintenance, Lee says the Santa Rosa Island Authority also produces the annual Pensacola Beach Blue Angels Air Show as well as the weekly Bands of the Beach shows. The next step is to find the company.

Janice Gilley says the board has started advertising a request for proposals to find the right fit for the job, "There are many companies that can actually come in and do an analysis of the situation at hand and they don't necessarily have to be proficient in government, as they have to be proficient in business operations and organizational management, that kind of thing. And looking at the revenues and expenses we have and then determining the level of services expected by residents on the island, the community, the businesses, to make sure we meet that level of expectation of services and we have the revenues to back them up."

The Authority board has budgeted $50 thousand for the project, and even though the funding situation may be years away from being settled, Gilley says the company's report may have ideas and suggestions that could be acted on much sooner, "There may be things we want to implement before, if there are efficiencies to be gained and it's obvious that there are efficiencies to be gained, then we should start those conversations with the county now."

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