BLOME: The Mid-Bay Bridge: Who loses this time?

Pete Blome, Libertarian’s View

The Okaloosa Board of County Commissioners (BCC) will soon perform the annual chore of unanimously approving the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority (MBBA) Budget for 2013.  It is a pity that this important county government function has become nothing more than going through the motions.

It is routine for MBBA budgets to get rubberstamped every year without critical questions of any kind. Even though the Mid-Bay Bridge and bypass is by far the largest public works project in the county, none of the past commissioners, and maybe some of the current ones, think there is anything for them to question. To them, the Mid-Bay Bridge and bypass are an absolute good.

Even the scope of the budget review has been limited by how the county attorney has interpreted controlling legislation. The MBBA budget is currently around $15 million, but only about $700,000 of that (the administrative budget) gets presented to the commissioners to approve. The rest remains under the exclusive control of the MBBA.

The matter is put out of sight, out of mind, and out of public scrutiny quickly and efficiently.

Ask yourself who benefits from our county government being run like this?

The companies involved in building the bypass benefit. A large chunk of the $280 million dollars of MBBA debt (on its way to $350 million) is for construction.

Real estate companies along the new bypass benefit. They get access to a publicly paid highway that allows the development of relatively inaccessible land in the Northern part of Niceville. Local homeowners benefit from higher land value.

The Mid-Bay Bridge Authority certainly benefits. Their salaries are good (Jim Vest, the executive director, makes $200,000+ per year) and their job security is second to none because there is little to no competition for them to face of any kind. They get autonomy that would make royalty jealous, since even royalty had to contend with a peasant revolt every now and then.

The Board of County Commissioners benefit. They look like they are managing a successful project. This is very much in the BCC’s self- interest because, as we have recently seen with the Florida Auditor General’s report, they have problems keeping county government accountable.

For them, the fewer areas of public contention the better.  Nor do debt or high tolls for their neighbors worry them. Paraphrasing Commissioner Wayne Harris, if people think tolls are too high, they don’t have to use them.

Are there any losers?

You bet there are. The public is the big loser. The BCC and the MBBA forgot that government management is always about providing the most services at the least cost to the public. There are 20,000 people who need the bridge and bypass daily. They will soon pay $9 round-trip, or about $2,000 a year. Had bridge authorities paid attention to paying off debt, instead of expanding, we might have had a bridge with a 50 cent toll. That would have been a real boost to economic development, and real assistance to Okaloosans when times are tough.

Poor strategic planning caused this. The MBBA built its future on the idea of unlimited growth; that expansion was justified because more and more cars would use the bridge and bypass every year. Since 2005, there have been fewer and fewer cars paying tolls. In short, the MBBA is spending more and taking in less. The BCC, unquestioningly, went along with this.

Objective observers see the problem. Fitch’s bond rating agency rated MBBA bonds one step above junk. The state legislature is making rumblings about taking away the MBBA autonomy. Unfortunately, this is all too late as the money has been spent, and the debts will be unsustainable. Eventually, these massive costs will be spread out to all Florida taxpayers. They will then be hoisted on the federal government who will print money to pay for them. Meanwhile, the travelers and workers in the county will keep on paying high tolls forever.

The BCC can’t make up for 20 years of neglect, but it would be nice for once if they’d stop just going through the budget motions, and come to understand what they’ve done to the citizens they serve.

Pete Blome is a retired military officer and chair of the Northwest Florida Libertarian Party.