Monroe County officials are researching how the county might get a share of billions of dollars in anticipated federal penalties levied against the oil company responsible for the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
Commissioner George Neugent, County Administrator Roman Gastesi, Assistant County Attorney Bob Shillinger and others are heading to Panama City on Florida's west coast on Thursday to meet with the Florida Association of Counties. The goal is to learn more about an expected settlement between BP and the Department of Justice for violations of the Clean Water Act related to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Gastesi said the Florida Keys could rake in as much as $100 million, which Monroe County likely would use to fund everything from wastewater projects and stormwater retention to canal restoration and repairs to the old Seven Mile Bridge.
"If this materializes as far as discussions have gone, this could be a tremendous economic boom for Monroe County," Neugent said.
The RESTORE Act, signed by President Barack Obama on July 6, mandates that the BP money be used for restoration efforts in the five coastal states damaged by the Deepwater Horizon spill: Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Texas.
"The feds had a problem with disseminating money to the states, because the states used previous money toward balancing budgets and not on shovel-ready jobs," Neugent said. "My understanding is that the feds' thinking is that they have a much better shot at stimulating the economy by sending the money to counties."
The money being sent to counties is separate from the money doled out by the the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF), the organization BP and the federal government created to distribute $20 billion of the oil company's money to compensate residents and businesses affected by the spill.
That organization has already paid out $6 billion in BP money to date nationwide, with Monroe County residents and businesses having received about $172 million from 10,600 claims, according to the GCCF.
There are eight counties in Florida that were "directly impacted" by the oil spill and 15 that were "indirectly impacted," according to the Florida Association of Counties. Gastesi said Monroe County falls into one of those 15 that were "indirectly impacted."
Neugent said the oil spill impacted Keys commercial fishermen and charter guides who lost customers, and scientists are still studying the effects of the spill on the entire Gulf of Mexico.
"To date, we have not had any identifiable negative impacts on our seafood, but we do know the spill killed fish larvae and a tremendous amount of fish species in the Gulf of Mexico," Neugent said.
Impact on the Keys
The impact of the spill on the Keys is not clear cut. A year after the spill, an analysis of data from the Monroe County Tourist Development Council, Key West International Airport and sales tax collections suggested the spill had little direct impact here.
Keyswide, occupancy rates after the spill were higher in every month -- except for August and December -- when compared with the same month the year prior, according to the Monroe County Tourist Development Council's lodging statistics. The average cost of a hotel room also was higher in every month of 2010 than it was for the same month in 2009.
In Key West, the percentage of hotel rooms booked in May 2010 -- the month after the spill -- was about 2 percent more than in May 2009. The numbers dipped one or two percentage points in June, July and August before rebounding in the fall. Summer occupancy in 2010 also was higher than in 2008.
Key West International Airport records show more people arrived in May, June, July and August 2010 -- during the height of the spill disaster -- than during those months in 2009. About 3,000 more visitors flew in during May 2010 compared with May 2009. Roughly 2,000 more arrived in June and July of 2010 compared with 2009. And in August 2010, it was 4,000 people over the previous year. Tourists spent about as much money after the spill as before, if not more, according sales tax revenues.
The Monroe County School District, for example, collected $11.5 million in sales tax revenue in the 2008-2009 fiscal year, $11.7 million in 2009-2010, and was on pace to collect the same amount in 2011.
Where the dollars would go
Whatever the impact in the Keys, if Monroe County does get BP money via the RESTORE Act, the funds will go to three primary series of projects, Gastesi said:
• Water quality projects in which wastewater, stormwater and canal environmental restoration projects could be on the horizon. One possible project is the proposed restoration of the Old Seven Mile Bridge.
• Fisheries research projects in which funds could go to organizations such as Mote Marine Laboratory or to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
• Habitat restoration projects in which funds might go to the National Wildlife Refuges of the Florida Keys or state and national parks.
"Some of these are high-dollar ticket items and we need to know how much money we are potentially dealing with," said Neugent.
Gastesi considers $50 million a low estimate.
"We're talking about a lot of money," he said. "We still have to learn what's out there and it's still a little cloudy right now."
Gastesi said he is in the process of possibly hiring a lobbyist to represent Monroe County in the months ahead when dollars begin flowing.
County commissioners are expected to discuss the county's options at their meeting Thursday at the Murray E. Nelson Government and Cultural Center in Key Largo, 102050 Overseas Highway.
"Until we know more, the best analogy is that we're trying to connect the dots," Gastesi said. "Right now, we're trying to identify the dots. One side is the money and the other side are the long-term projects we would see completed. We're still trying to see which dots make sense; which ones are viable."