Think not just good, but great.
That is what Cong. Steve Southerland urged commissioners from Gulf, Franklin and Wakulla counties during an informational meeting last Thursday at Apalachicola City Hall pertaining to the RESTORE Act.


 



Southerland urged commissioners to be broad-based, transparent and cohesive, not only in spending the billions in BP fine money potentially coming to eight counties along the Northwest Florida coast, but also in rebuffing attempts by the executive branch to change the dynamics of how those fines will be collected.



“The process (in RESTORE) will test you, but there is a fair and equitable way for all citizens on the Gulf Coast to benefit from these funds,” Southerland said.



Southerland spoke to commissioners from the three counties about what was contained in the bill passed with bipartisan support in both houses of Congress that aims, he said, to “restore” states impacted environmentally and economically by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill.



The bill is unique in Florida in that 75 percent of the largest pot of fine dollars, so-called “Pot One” which will account for 35 percent of total fines paid (see sidebar), will be sent directly to the eight impacted counties in Northwest Florida between Escambia and Wakulla.



The final decisions on how those funds will be spent will be made by each county’s board of county commissioners.



“I urge you to make decisions not for you, not for your children, but for your grandchildren,” Southerland said. “Do the right thing. Come together as communities. Focus on single major goals. Don’t just think good, think great. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”



Southerland urged every county to establish a “broad-based” advisory committee to work through ideas and goals and provide input. Gulf County has established such a committee, which is meeting weekly, but Franklin County has yet to establish one.



“We are trying to get ahead of the curve so when the dollars do start flowing we are ready to move the process forward,” said Gulf County Commissioner Warren Yeager.



Apalachicola is pressing other municipalities to join in a resolution urging more input from the cities in decisions on projects that impact them.



Southerland said input from all stakeholders, particularly the public, was crucial, not just for local success of projects but also when the Department of Treasury assesses projects under criteria yet to be established.



The Department of Treasury, Southerland said, would have final say on what projects receive funding. The criteria must be established within 180 days of the signing of the RESTORE Act, or by Dec. 31.



Under the process, once a proposal is forwarded to Treasury, approved and a check cut, the county must report to Congress in 12 months how that money was spent and whether it was spent for the purpose intended.



“Why would county commissioners take all the liability themselves?” Southerland said. “Commissioners should spread the risk. The public should be involved. You must make sure everyone has input. I think the counties can do this.”



Southerland said counties must join together to rebuff attempts by Department of Justice to assess BP fines – estimated, he said, between $5 billion and $20 billion and which should be assessed by a federal judge sometime in 2013 – under the National Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) instead of under the Clean Water Act, which would render moot the provisions of the RESTORE Act.



All funds – the RESTORE Act divides the fine money between environmental and economic restoration – would thereby be paid for environmental impacts; no money would be earmarked for economic recovery from the spill, Southerland said.



He said the president signed the bill in June. Southerland considered any attempt to undermine it unconstitutional.



“I can’t see (the president) arguing a bill that has his name on it,” Southerland said.