With hurricane bills looming Mexico Beach seeks to cut emergency services

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Working on a razor thin budget of $3 million and trying to rebound after Hurricane Michael destroyed the town, Mexico Beach city leaders sought to eliminate both its police and fire departments. 

The plan was to have Bay County take over the fire department and the Sheriff’s Office take over the police. The fire department was spared when the county declined the offer.  But the Sheriff’s Office is still drawing up their proposal. 

Over the past two weeks, Chief Anthony Kelly referred questions on the situation to Interim City Administrator Tanya Castro, saying he couldn’t grant an interview without her consent.  However, Castro and Mayor Al Cathey have prevented the police department from speaking to the media on the matter. 

When News 13 asked Castro for permission to interview members of the police department she declined saying that she would make herself or the mayor available for interviews. During an in-person interview with Castro, we asked again and were, again, denied. 

“I think it would be fine if we reached that point. I think it’s premature right now to interview them about that,” Castro said. 

The tensions between Castro and Kelly have been an ongoing issue at least since the storm. The pair did not agree on several moves Kelly made during and after the storm and called on the council to fire him.  At that time Castro never explained why she wanted Kelly fired. Kelly told the media at that time that he had taken criticism for how his department dealt with the storm and its aftermath.  Attempts to get police reports from that time were unsuccessful.

According to media reports, Kelly and his officers visited nearly every resident and urged them to evacuate. If they refused, officers asked them to write their name and social security numbers on their arms so they could be identified after the storm killed them. Their mission, to get people to leave resulted in dozens, if not hundreds of evacuations. Officers then kept tabs on everyone who remained during the storm so that rescue workers could check on them when it was over.   

Kelly and his officers stayed in the city until the last possible moment and then evacuated themselves. Kelly told the media there was no structure in Mexico Beach that could withstand the storm and wouldn’t leave his officers in a deadly situation.  They returned shortly after the storm and worked with search and rescue crews and city leaders. However, Castro and Kelly butted heads over closing the city to keep out looters. Kelly wanted to bring in food trucks and other supplies into the city to help people who stayed in what was left of their homes.  

Whatever the disagreements between Kelly and Castro that particular dynamic will soon come to an end. Mexico Beach’s new city administrator is taking over later this month.   Rather than a personal issue, or a problem with performance, the idea to contract out police service boils down to numbers, Cathey and Castro said.  

“We’re not anti-local police department,” Cathey said. “We’re trying to do what we think can serve our community the best.” 

Fy 19 Budget on Scribd

At $805,000 the police department does make up the largest single item in the Mexico Beach budget. Other items include $33,707 for elected officials, $95,581 for the city administrator, $444,005 for general government and $700,000 for general maintenance, streets, and canals.  The city is also paying $120,000 in debt service. 

“We have an obligation to make sure we are giving our citizens the best service for the best price,” Castro said.  She added that while the city has not laid off any employees so far but they have cut positions through attrition.

In their search for more money city officials examined a number of the city’s departments and services. The fire department is funded through a special assessment. But 70 percent of the structures in Mexico Beach were destroyed by Hurricane Michael.  And Castro says that assessment will no longer bring in enough revenue to cover the department. So, they considered turning fire services over to the county. 

However, taking over Mexico Beach was a bad deal for the county, officials said. 

“When we examined Bay County Fire Rescue providing fire protection for the City of Mexico Beach, we found that it jeopardized the ISO rating of 3 currently assigned to Unincorporated Bay County,” said Mark Bowen, the chief of emergency services in Bay County. “ISO ratings translate into what people pay for fire insurance in their homeowner’s policies … If Mexico Beach has its own Fire Department, they can meet similar ISO requirements much more cost effectively because their jurisdiction is so small.”

With an inability to eliminate the fire department city officials turned to the police department.  Cathey and Castro are quick to point out that the City of Callaway is very happy with the service provided to them by the Sheriff’s Office. 

That is certainly true. Callaway City Manager Eddie Cook was effusive in his praise for the department. 

“We have an excellent relationship with Bay County, and it is more than just police protection,” Cook said.

The Sheriff’s Office is the largest law enforcement agency in Bay County and when you get them you also get a drug investigation task force, swift water rescue teams, a dive team and their investigative resources and experience solving murders and other serious crimes. 

However, the comparison between Callaway and Mexico Beach breaks down when numbers get involved. Callaway has a $20 million budget. They pay the Sheriff’s Office $1.7 million. For this, they get all the services previously mentioned and 16 deputies who are dedicated to the Callaway zone. 

Callaway Contract on Scribd

“That’s a bargain,” Cook said. 

The city is also free from liability and personnel issues, Cook said. If the sheriff’s office or a member of the community has a problem with a deputy it Is the sheriff, not the city council, who is required to deal with it. 

This was not the first time the Mexico Beach has attempted to contract out law enforcement services with the Bay County Sheriff’s Office.  In 2011, the city asked for and received a proposal for law enforcement services from then-Sheriff Frank McKeithen. His number at the time was $480,000. The city passed.

The Sheriff’s Office has declined to talk about the current proposal. Officials there say they have just received the request and the proposal is not yet ready. 

“The sheriff has let us know he has an interest in that if he can man it properly and has the resources to do the type of job that he wants done,” Cathey said. 

A Callaway style takeover of the police department is not the only local example for cities and residents for struggling communities.  Bay County is home to one of the only communities that was a city and then fully dissolved. The residents of Cedar Grove, facing years of corruption and other issues, successfully managed to eliminate the city government and the area was absorbed by the county. 

The impact of that decision for both the residents and the county was minimal. County officials said there was a rise in utility costs to some residents and a street lighting program run by the city was eliminated. 

But the problem facing Mexico Beach isn’t corruption, it’s math. 

The city’s budget depends on property taxes. But 70 percent of the storm’s 27,000 homes were damaged by the storm. Before the storm about 1,100 people lived in Mexico Beach. Now, only 400 or so remain, Castro said. The city doesn’t currently have a gas station or a grocery store, although both of those are available in nearby Port St. Joe. 

Financially, the city has managed to stay afloat this long thanks to FEMA money and that money is still coming in. But, sooner or later, the city will have to stand on its own. It’s unclear what will happen if there is just not enough tax revenue to cover the bills.  Unlike eliminating the police and fire departments, shutting down the city is not something the leadership of Mexico Beach has considered. 

“We haven’t had any discussions as a council or a city council about that,” Castro said.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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