Oil Task Force Members Wonder Whether BP Will Be Able to Pay Up

Tallahassee, FL – A task force created by Governor Charlie Crist in response to the Gulf oil spill met for the first time last week. Gina Jordan tells us some members are concerned about whether BP will be able to fulfill its financial responsibility to Florida and other Gulf coast states.

The Oil Spill Economic Recovery Task Force is made up of twenty-eight lawmakers, state agency heads, and business and tourism leaders from Northwest Florida. Governor Crist gave them their marching orders.

"You know, when the hotel across the street from the restaurant isn't full, then the restaurant's not full. And continuing to get the word out about the fact that the vast majority of our beaches in Florida are incredibly clean and pristine and our seafood is delicious and it's good and it's healthy, and we have wonderful agencies that will continue to protect the people, their health, safety and welfare."

Their key responsibilities include monitoring BP's efforts in providing financial relief, and coordinating efforts to gather information about economic losses. Tallahassee lawyer Steve Uhlfelder asked how BP will be able to pay potentially billions of dollars in losses to the state.

"I've seen school districts talking about lost revenues, whether they're going to continue to operate the schools, lost jobs, property values, restaurants, police forces. BP's lost half their value of their stock. They went like mid-60's down to mid-30's. They've lost half their value. I just don't see how BP is going to cover the dramatic effects that it's already having on our state."

Uhlfelder wants the oil giant to write Florida one big check, maybe for a billion dollars, and let the state handle claims. For now, BP has all the power in determining which claims are legitimate. BP representative Paula Barnett told the task force more than 38-thousand claims have been filed among Gulf coast states, mostly for lost income. So far about half have been paid, amounting to nearly $50-million. She promised continued cooperation.

"I am here to hear your concerns and your issues, and my intention, what I am charged to do, is to get you answers as quickly as possible. Two of my colleagues are in the back. They have been taking copious notes. We're going to take these back, and I will do my best to get them in short order back to you."

One thing the claims aren't is tax free. Destin Mayor Sam Seevers is worried that those who receive payouts will forget about the IRS.

"It may be a charter boat captain that gets $5-thousand, but at the end of the year when they think they've got it in their pocket, they don't. They're going to have to pay taxes on those dollars, and I'm just concerned that if we need to get that message out, if we need to see if there's a way to help those folks mitigate that issue. I think that's really important."

Countless businesses depend on the boating and fishing industry. Nick Wiley, executive director of the Fish and Wildlife Commission, says Florida's fisheries are in good shape despite a letter Governor Crist sent to Commerce Secretary Gary Locke requesting a determination of a commercial fishery failure. Wiley says the wording was necessary in order to get federal money.

"So I want to be clear on that. Our fisheries, our seafood industries as you've already heard, the governor himself made it very clear that our seafood industries are wide open and great and as good as ever, and we're watching it closely, and we don't want the misunderstandings to get out there."

A national auto club is apparently contributing to some misunderstandings. Dawn Moliterno, president and CEO of the Walton Area Chamber of Commerce, wants better public relations in light of an advisory issued by AAA.

"Triple-A's advisory says avoid taking a trip to Florida. Vacation anywhere from New Orleans to Panama City Beach is discouraged.' That went out to millions of Triple-A members."

She says travelers are using the advisory as a reason for cancelling reservations. The state's marketing agency, Visit Florida, is trying to counter that kind of misinformation by constantly updating its website with photos showing the state's beaches free of oil. Before ending his speech to the members, Governor Crist praised singer Jimmy Buffett. The two recently spent time with volunteers along Pensacola Beach.

"He had some great comments that he made to the press and just to everyday folks that we don't want to have a sky-is-falling attitude about this thing. I mean, we have faced hurricanes. We have faced tornadoes. We have faced an awful lot together, and we will continue to do that with regard to this situation."

The task force was formed in May, and for one year, members will report to the governor monthly with recommendations.