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Buck Lee Retires From SRIA

Santa Rosa Island Authority

After a decade on the job, Buck Lee retired earlier this month as Executive Director of the Santa Rosa Island Authority. He recently sat down with WUWF’s Dave Dunwoody to look back, and to look forward.

Did the takeovers of the Santa Rosa Island Authority’s Public Works and Public Safety Departments hasten your decision to step down?

Yes. What they were trying to do is, since they had to start paying ad valorem taxes on the [residential] land and structures, the county said ‘we’re going to cut their lease fees in half.’ Let’s say the average is $600; it went to $300. Normally, when you go to a hotel or have food it’s two percent; so they cut it down to one percent. That was about four million dollars’ worth of savings.

So they took Public Works and Public Safety, which was also about four million dollars. So, we have about four million dollars coming in now to the Island Authority, and we don’t know what’s going to happen next year. I figured if they want to take over the last three departments we have – Finance, Administration and developmental Services – then it’s time for me to go ahead and go and wish them the best of luck and hope they carry on what we’ve been doing.

You came on board just after Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Take us back to that time and your biggest challenges.

I’d been there about six-seven weeks, and Hurricane Dennis hit. My main goal was to try to cut expenses. There were cell phones that employees had down at Maintenance, so I took those. We had two billboards up on I-65. We got rid of those, because there was nothing to come see but devastation at that time. In 2008-2009 was the economic depression. I said ‘Could it get any worse than this?’ And yes it could. We had the BP oil spill.

How did you apply your county commission and consultant experience, and even your time as an auto dealer before that, in heading up SRIA and coping with the oil spill and other crises?

At the Authority we have about 90-95 employees at the height of the [tourist] season. As a Buick dealer I have about 60-65 employees. Of course, as a county commissioner you’ve got thousands of them, but you let everybody do their jobs, and you set policy and procedure. We had to dig in and luckily from my experience as a county commissioner, I knew a lot of folks that could help us. I went to them, and sure enough we got the help that we needed to clean up the beach and get everything going again.

There’s been talk over the years about dismantling SRIA. With the county takeover, do you feels that’s moved closer to reality?

It could be. I was at a county commission meeting last year, and they talked about going to the state [legislative] delegation and rescinding Chapter 24-500, which in 1947 formed the Island Authority. If they decide to go forward with that again this year to the delegation, then about this time next year, the delegation could take it up and pass it, and there’d be no more Island Authority. It would be a county department. But that’s up to the county commissioners, so it’s only speculation at this time.

The Independent News is reporting that you’re considering a run for Escambia County Tax Collector.

I’ve looked into it. I don’t know at this time. Janet Holley, who is Tax Collector now, is retiring. This was mentioned to me back in October. And I kept thinking and thinking about it and still looking into it.

Aside from that, what’s next for Buck Lee? You don’t sound retired.

I’m going to be doing something. My wife, God bless her, we’ve been married 41 years. I’m not going to sit around as much as I love her and watch cooking shows with her. I’ve got to stay busy, it’s my nature. I’m not fully retired – I’m playing golf every day.

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.