Mobile County Commissioners have agreed to borrow up to $30 million through general obligation warrants that will be paid back with revenue from future oil royalties to move forward more quickly with significant environmental and public access projects.
As Lagniappe has reported, Mobile County has received millions of dollars each year through the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act (GOMESA), which distributes a portion of federal royalties from offshore oil and gas mining with the coastal communities impacted by those operations.
Since 2018, the country has received more than $11.5 million through the GOMESA program — funding that can only be spent on environmental efforts like land conservation, hurricane preparedness projects and coastal protection. This week, the County Commission voted 2-1 to an agreement that pledges future GOMESA funding to pay off up to $30 million in general obligation warrants sold on the market.
According to Commissioner Connie Hudson, that will allow the county to collect millions of dollars upfront to begin working on a number of planned GOMESA projects, including major upgrades to public facilities like Chickasabogue Park and the Escatawpa Hollow Campground.
“It’s really going to allow us to move forward a lot faster on some of these projects we have lined up, and right now a lot of that focus is on public access to our waterways and land conservation,” Hudson said. “I think it’s a win-win for the county. One of the bright spots is, if for whatever reason those [GOMESA] funds go away, the federal government has guaranteed that debt service will be paid.”
Hudson said that guarantee means there isn’t any risk of the county defaulting the obligation warrants — a kind of borrowing the county has used in the past for big-ticket projects like the multimillion-dollar renovation planned at Mobile Metro Jail.
While Hudson voted in favor of the package Monday along with Commissioner Merceria Ludgood, Commission President Jerry Carl remained opposed. Speaking to Lagniappe, Carl said he didn’t have an issue with the planned uses for the funds, but he doesn’t believe borrowing against future revenue is the best way to fund government projects in general.
“I just have issues with putting the county in further debt borrowing money against the future,” Carl said. “I didn’t make a big fuss about it, but with the debt situation such as it is as far as the federal government, I think the least we can do is try to keep county and city government as debt-free as we can.”
Environmental Grants Director Tina Sanchez said Mobile County will be one of only a handful of jurisdictions along the Gulf Coast that have pledged projected GOMESA funding as a way to pay off debt service incurred from general obligation bonds and warrants. She said local officials waited until larger projects appropriate for GOMESA funding were identified before pursuing this option.
“As part of the county’s GOMESA plan approved in 2018, we looked at master planning for public access parks like the Escatawpa Hollow Campground and Chickasabogue Park,” Sanchez said. “Over time it became clear these waterfront parks are very important to the community and health of the community, but investing in them would require more money than we had projected out in terms of annual revenue.”
The county approved up to $30 million in warrants, but Environmental Services Director Eddie Kerr said only about $27 million of funding would be needed to move forward with implementing master plans developed with funding from previous rounds of GOMESA.
Those “implementation” expenses are outlined in a GOMESA expenditure plan commissioners also voted to approve Monday, which will be used to guide a projected $42 million worth of projects between 2020 and 2025.
“Improvements at Chickasabogue and Escatawpa will definitely be an immediate focus either through the acquisition of additional land or improvements to some of the waterfront facilities,” Kerr said. “We’re acting on those first because we’ve got good estimates as far as costs and good master planning that will let us move forward much faster. But, we’ll still be looking for other opportunities as well.”
Kerr said he’d anticipated seeing $6 million to $9 million in immediate improvements at Chickasabogue Park alone, though other GOMESA expenditures in the new five-year plan include a projected $3.6 million for public land acquisition, $2.1 million for conservation land management, $335,000 for storm surge monitoring, and an additional $750,000 to support the county recycling center on Hitt Road.
Another expense approved as part of the plan is a $3 million allocation to finish out a “permeable paving” parking lot at the recently opened Mobile County Soccer Complex during future phases of construction.
The county previously approved $1.4 million for the same project, which drew some criticism from environmental groups like Mobile Baykeeper. However, county officials have contended it is a “green project” and an appropriate use of GOMESA funds because it will prevent stormwater runoff into nearby waterways.
“The goal of the project is for the soccer complex parking area to serve as an example of innovative stormwater management,” Sanchez said. “It employs a permeable parking paver system to control the quantity of stormwater runoff and remove large debris. This helps to protect water quality in the Dog River Watershed by preventing litter and reducing the potential for sedimentation and other pollutants.”
In addition to GOMESA funds, Mobile County has used several other funding sources to take on environmental projects over the past several years, including several sources tied to recovery efforts from the 2010 BP oil spill and the Coastal Impact Assistance Program.
Since 2014, the county has purchased more than 1,500 acres in places like Lightning Point, Big Creek Lake and Saltaire through various preservation and public access projects.
“The availability of these funding sources is allowing us to address a lot of the conservation and environmental-type projects that we as a county have focused on for a long time,” Hudson said. “Land acquisitions are a big part of our preservation efforts. It’s been fortuitous that we’ve had the opportunity to utilize these funds to further these types of critical environmental and infrastructure projects.”
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