PENSACOLA, Fla. – When Gulf Breeze, Florida, veteran and business owner Mike Esmond graciously paid the past-due utility bills of 36 households in December 2019, he did so in the name of a holiday good deed. He could relate to those struggling after struggling himself years ago.
This year, a more pressing feeling made Esmond decide to pay the overdue bills of 114 households in Gulf Breeze, almost doubling his donation total from 2019 in the process. His city, after all, was uniquely impacted by the combination of September’s Hurricane Sally and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“Gulf Breeze is just a ghost town,” Esmond said Monday, referring to the drastic decrease in incoming traffic caused by the Pensacola Bay Bridge shutdown. “Normally there’s 55,000 cars a day that go through to buy gas and stop at McDonald’s or Waffle House. There’s nothing now, there’s no traffic. Zero.”
Just as he did last December, the 74-year-old owner of Gulf Breeze Pools and Spas visited his City Hall this month and requested a list of all utility accounts that were past due and at risk of having their gas and water turned off. He then promptly donated to all 114 accounts.
Esmond is confident the massive jump in overdue accounts is tied to unemployment brought on by the pandemic and the financial woes incurred by the shutdown of the bridge. On Sept. 16, unmoored Skanska USA barges slammed into the bridge and put it out of commission until at least March 2021.
“Even if we didn’t have the hurricane, I felt like the pandemic alone made it more critical for me to do something,” Esmond said. “Last year, I did something just to help people out. This year, it’s more meaningful.”
Esmond’s second good deed totaled $7,615.40, according to Gulf Breeze Utility Billing Supervisor Joanne Oliver. He paid off about $4,600 worth of bills last year.
Financially, Esmond thrived in 2020. He said he’s almost ashamed to admit how successful Gulf Breeze Pools and Spas was this year, as his company directly benefited from both Sally and the pandemic.
“When people sat at home last spring with nothing to do, they bought swimming pools,” Esmond said. “When we had the hurricane, and so many places were damaged, that gives more work to roofers and contractors. And you know what, it brought in a lot of extra income for me with all the pools that were damaged and underwater. That’s why it was more important this year to share with the people in our community.”
Esmond said he knows what it’s like to be so cash deprived that paying every bill owed isn’t an option. He said that at the end of 1983, he opted to stop paying for gas, a decision that immediately proved to be unwise.
“I couldn’t afford to pay the bills while raising three daughters. I made the decision to just let a bill go,” he said. “I let the gas bill go ’cause I thought, ‘We live in Florida, who needs heat?’ Well, look back at the records, that’s the coldest winter we’ve ever had. It got down to 6 degrees. Our house was frozen.”
Last year, when Esmond noticed a Dec. 26 due date on his own utility bills, memories of that brutal winter in 1983 came rushing back.
“I thought to myself, ‘I wonder how many other people are going to go through that?'” Esmond said. “That’s what prompted me to go up to City Hall and inquire about how many people are on the list to be disconnected.”
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Earlier this year, the city of Gulf Breeze extended its grace period from 30 days to 60 days before it disconnects the water, gas and sewer utilities of unpaid residents. The decision was made to help combat this year’s tumultuous circumstances.
After Esmond wiped out the last list of unpaid accounts, the utility billing cycle renewed last week, according to Oliver. And when it did, individuals in Gulf Breeze wasted no time in stepping up the way Esmond stepped up.
“We did have five donations come in yesterday and today and those people did say they were inspired by Mr. Esmond,” Oliver said Monday. “The new list is down to 44 accounts that are just over 30 days past due.”
Inspiring others to pay it forward is what it’s all about for Esmond, who went viral for his 2019 good deed.
His act of Christmas kindness sparked generosity on a worldwide level last year. This year’s act of kindness may reach those same global heights in time, but at the very least Esmond’s gesture is being reciprocated locally, for a city that needs all the help it can get right now.
“I can’t put into words the way it feels when people say they sat down and cried when they read about what I’ve done,” Esmond said. “People ask me, ‘How has this affected you?’ And there are no words to describe the way that I feel.”