A citizens committee inched closer Monday night to deciding the all-important point system that will determine which projects will be funded by millions of dollars in oil spill penalty money.
But the Escambia County RESTORE Advisory Committee put off for another month any vote or debate on which point system to use – one that gives equal weight to environmental, economic and infrastructure work, or one that puts more emphasis on environmental conservation and restoration projects.
About 20 people were in the audience Monday, and several urged the committee to decide on a scoring system that would favor environmental projects over all others.
“The whole reason we are here is that this was an economic disaster caused by an environmental disaster,” said Jim Cox of Gulf Breeze, who urged the committee to give extra weight to environmental projects that benefit the beach and bay areas of the county.
The committee was appointed by the Escambia Board Commission in 2012 to devise a fair method of distributing as much as $200 million to be paid by BP, the British petroleum company held most responsible for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster.
Under the federal RESTORE Act, 80 percent of the civil penalties will be spilt among the states and counties most affected by the spill. A federal court is expected to rule this spring on the final amount that BP must pay.
After the committee decides on a scoring system for projects, probably by this summer, the public will be invited to submit detailed project ideas. After evaluating projects and scoring them, the committee will recommended a slate of projects to the county commissioners, who will further evaluate the recommendations and decide which projects to put out for bid. The U.S. Treasury Department must also review the projects to see if they meet certain basic criteria, according to the law.
Dewberry, a national consulting firm hired by the county to work with the committee and provide technical expertise, presented the two scoring systems Monday.
— Option One would give a maximum of 20 points each to environmental, economic and infrastructure projects, along with lesser amounts for other criteria. In other words, the big three local concerns, environment, economics and infrastructure, could each produce up to 22 percent of the total score on a project.
— Option Two would give environmental criteria up to 29 percent of the total score, economic criteria would weigh in at 18 percent, and infrastructure at 18 percent.
“It would be a cop-out to give equal weight to everything,” said Christian Wagley, the committee member appointed to represent local environmental interests. He urged his fellow members to go with Option Two and abide by a county survey that heavily favored ecological restoration and conservation projects.
Others in the audience recommended a scoring system that would ensure that disabled citizens and minority neighborhoods reap rewards from the bounty of oil spill money.
“Escambia County is one of the poorest counties in the state,” said Tony McCray Jr., a businessman and community organizer. “I would say that economic development is one of the most critical issues we must address with these dollars.” A system that does not favor environment over economic development is more logical, he said.
The committee also heard from a private citizens group that produced its own scoring system. RESTORE Escambia, a group of local environmental experts, suggested a detailed plan that would give the greatest weight to environmental criteria, up to 27 percent of the total possible points, but also favors bonus criteria, which emphasize green building design, education and neighborhood benefits.
Also, by aligning oil-spill-funded projects with those to be funded by Amendment One to the Florida Constitution, which guarantees millions of dollars for conservation projects, the county would be able to stretch the money further, group members said.
The RESTORE Advisory Committee will provide an update on its progress later this month to the county commissioners. The committee’s next meeting, at which the contentious issue of the scoring system likely will be finalized, comes April 6.