With some fanfare, Florida Governor Charlie Crist accepted an offer from British Petroleum yesterday for a $25-million block grant dedicated to initial state and local preparation and response costs for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
"We will use the block grant from BP to take proactive measures to help prevent the devastating impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill," Crist told me and the other media gathered. Specifically, Crist said the funds could help the state and local governments protect the coastal zone, coordinate and facilitate response and safeguard the sensitive marine environments
Hmmm. Just yesterday Congressman Jeff Miller told me at the press conference at the local Emergency Operations Center in Pensacola, Florida that he was working with the Gulf States Congressional delegation to push the White House to have British Petroleum set aside in an escrow account of $1 billion to fund clean-up efforts by local governments.
Florida's CFO Alex Sink was told she could call the BP's 800-number if she wanted to talk with someone higher up in the company.
"An escrow of a billion-plus is only a down payment of the potential costs," said Miller. BP's $25-million block grant effectively blunts the $1 billion plan—nice PR for 2.5 percent of Miller's price tag. Not a bad deal, except the money barely gets the local clean-up efforts started, and will likely be torn through within days.
Grover Robinson, IV, the county commission chairman of Escambia County, which includes Pensacola, says initial preparations, boom deployment and clean-up costs have been estimated to be $5.7 million—a third of the county's financial reserves—with the cost soaring if the oil clean-up is protracted.
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"This will only cover our costs for the very short term," says Robinson.
Pensacola, the largest city in Escambia County, projects its initial costs to be another $3 million or so. "However, if it's a prolonged spill, obviously the costs would escalate exponentially," says Mayor Mike Wiggins.
Across Pensacola Bay, the bedroom community of Gulf Breeze expects to spend $1 million within the next few days, says city manager Buzz Eddy, while the county there, Santa Rosa County, expects to quickly spend $3 million. "Our county includes Navarre Beach," says Gordon Goodin. "We renourished that beach two years ago for $19 million. If the oil damages those berms, we could spend upwards of $30 million to restore them."
Adding those initial budgets up, a mere two counties in Florida will spend within a few days half of what BP has budgeted for the entire state. Hope Lanier, BP's Director of Government and Public Affairs for the Southeast region, said there are no strings attached to the grants.
Meanwhile, there is a growing frustration among state officials with the lack of BP executives with true decision-making power in Florida. Most egregiously, Florida's Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a sudden favorite among locals frustrated with a lack of straight-forward answers from BP, was told Monday by the oil giant's director of civic affairs, Liz Castro, that Sink could call the company's 800-number if she wanted to talk with someone higher-up.
Sink, a Democratic candidate for Florida governor this November, wasn't too happy about the brush-off when The Daily Beast asked her about it, shortly before heading to the Unified Command Center in Mobile, Alabama to meet with federal officials.
"When I get there, I will demand that the BP executive there give me the name of someone responsible who will contact me personally and my office," Sink said. "I want to get a real live person at BP who can tell us about the claims process and how to get cash in the hands of small businesses hurt by this."
After the meeting, I asked her if she had called the 1-800 number like she was instructed by BP.
"Hell, no," replied Sink, adding that a "real person" has now contacted her, and promised to get her in touch with his bosses. "I think BP misunderstood the power of the CFO in the state of Florida."
Rick Outzen is publisher and editor of Independent News, the alternative newsweekly for Northwest Florida.