Jeff Bergosh kicked off his year as Chairman of the Escambia County Commission last week. Before he took the gavel from outgoing chairman Doug Underhill, he sat down with WUWF’s Dave Dunwoody.
The new chairman, who also represents District-1, served for ten years on the county School Board and says his experiences on that panel was a great training ground for his new gig.
“Because of structure there, with the strong, elected superintendent,” said Bergosh. “Here, the lines are a little blurred because you have an administrator, but he’s actually an employee.”
Bergosh started his tenure as Chairman by proposing to add a penny to the current four-cent bed tax on hotel room rentals, with the proceeds from that so-called “Blue Penny” going to the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office.
“For example, last year we increased [the budget] 4.25 percent,” said Bergosh. “We’ll set the amount, we’ll give [ECSO] a commensurate increase, and then we’ll creatively fund an additional $2.1 million yearly to help [Sheriff David Morgan] fix his pay scale issue.”
Funding for ECSO, says Bergosh, is just part of the largest overall issue facing the Commission each year: the budget, which increased to around $455 million. Add to that the cost of healthcare that continues to rise, along with the prospect of a potential property tax hike.
“Congress is unable to do anything to give us any relief from Obamacare, so we’re paying the price here at the local level; local governments are paying the price,” said Bergosh. “Meanwhile, there’s always the pressure not to raise taxes; I will never vote to raise the [property] tax rates. I won’t do it.”
The bottom line, says Bergosh, is that governments must follow their constituents in living within their means. In an op-ed published in the Pensacola News Journal, he wrote that the way to address rising costs without tax increases is growth across the board.
“We have to have intelligent policies [and] make good decisions to grow our population; to grow our businesses, and that in turn will lead to more revenue in the coffers. It’s very challenging; I said that in that op-ed and I meant it.”
Another item on the Commission’s plate is the construction of a new county jail, to replace the central booking center that exploded in 2014, and the annex that’s been showing wear and tear over the years.
“We have the money set aside; we have approved the contractor. There was a protest but we’ve overcome that,” Bergosh said. “Our staff and our consultant are finalizing the agreement and right now, buildings are being demolished on the [old] McDonald’s property and it will be up in the next 24-26 months.”
For a number of obvious reasons, grassroots government is vastly different from state and federal. Escambia County Commission Chairman Jeff Bergosh says Tallahassee and Washington would do well to take a page from their local counterparts, especially on the financial side.
“I’m a proponent of balanced budgets; at the local level, this is where the rubber meets the road,’ said Bergosh. “We don’t have a printing press, we certainly have a limitation to what we can borrow and bond. And I think they could take a lesson on many counts.”
District 3 Commissioner Lumon May will serve the next year as Vice Chairman. He held the gavel from November 2013 through November 2014 on the Commission’s rotating chairman format.