The cities of Carrabelle and Apalachicola want direct oversight of a portion of the expected RESTORE Act funds headed for Franklin County but the county commissioners don’t see it that way.
The county has been promised as much as $66 million, a portion of the fines levied against BP for environmental and economic damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
None of the money has arrived and there is no concrete indication on when the first checks will be cut, if eve. But organizations and individuals across the county are scrambling to identify projects to spend it, and the county commissioners have proposed a 14-member advisory council that would recommend projects over which the county commissioners would have final say.
The county must hold a public workshop to discuss the ordinance to create the RESTORE council before it can be enacted into law. But already, the county is soliciting citizens to serve on the proposed council.
Pam Shiver, the newly elected school board member set to be sworn in Tuesday, was appointed the school’s representative to the RESTORE committee at the Nov. 8 meeting.
The cities, though, see things differently, and have invited the county to a Monday meeting to start a legal process to resolve the conflict. The county, based on the opinion of its attorney Michael Shuler, has opted not to become involved in the cities’ plan.
In September, Apalachicola proposed distributing RESTORE funds between the cities and unincorporated areas of the county.
When the county failed to respond to the proposal, Apalachicola City Attorney Pat Floyd wrote to the county in October asking to enter into negotiations based on Chapter 164 of the Florida Statutes, which provides for creating a governmental conflict resolution procedure to provide an “equitable, expeditious, effective, and inexpensive method” to avoid courtroom squabbles between government entities.
Shuler replied with a letter stating that no conflict existed between the cities and county because the distribution of RESTORE funds is mandated by federal law.
Floyd said that local distribution is the root of the conflict between cities and county. “It is true that the distribution of the fine funds to the eight disproportionately impacted county areas is mandated,” he said. “But there is no specification from that point forward of how the money will be dealt with locally.”
The problem of who will allocate RESTORE funds within the counties is the subject of an ongoing debate. At the Oct. 16 county meeting, Commissioner Smokey Parrish, who acted as county liaison in matters related to the oil spill, said he would no longer represent the county in that capacity, after the commission voted 3-2 not to join the Gulf Consortium, a board proposed by the Florida Association of Counties (FAC) to vet and approve local projects funded by BP fines. Any future involvement by the county in the consortium could impact the decision-making powers of a local council.
At the same meeting, commissioners voted to form the local council that would vet projects within the county but, under this plan, the county commission has the ultimate say in who receives funding.
The RESTORE Act does not outline a process for what happens after money reaches Florida’s affected counties, but the FAC has suggested the creation of these RESTORE councils to decide where to spend the local funds, a suggestion echoed by Rep. Steve Southerland during a recent private meeting with some local officials.
FAC spokeswoman Cragin Mosteller said although counties are not required to form RESTORE committees, the FAC has recommended it to invoke transparency in the process.
“We have certainly encouraged (the counties) to develop those committees—transparency is going to be critical in this process,” Mosteller said. “From the time of the spill, our cities and counties have worked very well together and I believe that will continue.”
Carrabelle joins with Apalachicola
At their Nov. 1 meeting, Carrabelle commissioners voted unanimously to join Apalachicola in seeking talks with Franklin County over distribution of RESTORE Act funds.
In a letter to the county commission sent by Mayor Van Johnson on Oct. 15, the mayor wrote that “the obvious conflict that has developed between the county commission and the city commissions of Apalachicola and Carrabelle is that the county commission has refused and failed to agree to the local distribution plan adopted by all the cities and has failed to include the cities in a plan or even the discussion of a plan.”
Johnson said that because of the county’s refusal to “even to discuss a plan that gives an equal voice to the people of these communities through their elected mayors and city commissions, we were forced to take a step further to attempt to deal with this conflict by participating in an intergovernmental conflict resolution procedure.”
Both Apalachicola and Carrabelle have expressed displeasure with the county’s unwillingness to discuss the RESTORE Act.
At Carrabelle’s Nov. 1 meeting, Commissioner Cal Allen said, “We submitted something to the county a month ago asking them to meet with us about RESTORE Act funding and we haven’t received an answer. With so much money at stake, we want to be sure everybody has a seat at the table.”
He said he believed the cities and the county have equal standing before the state as local entities eligible to receive RESTORE funds as “coastal political subdivisions,” a term used in the RESTORE Act.
Floyd and Carrabelle City Attorney Dan Hartman agree. Hartman said the Florida League of Cities also maintains that municipalities are on equal footing with counties under RESTORE. Hartman wants the county to open a dialogue with the cities on the RESTORE Act Council proposed at the county’s Oct.16 meeting.
“I agree that the cities have a seat at the table, but it is an equal seat with the county commission regarding this important distribution that is to be attained,” Floyd said. “In the original proposal from the FAC the city with the greatest population or suffering the greatest impact from the oil spill had equal representation with the county commission on the proposed council. This just points up how council configuration is not part of the RESTORE Act and continues to be changed by the county.”
He said he would like to see the county “show its independence from the other counties and the FAC that are trying to pressure them into the mold of another level appointed government both locally and regionally.”
Floyd said county commissioners should agree to “a fair and clear plan for distribution of the monies with its two cities. That way the elected officials of the cities who know the needs within their jurisdiction will have the responsibility for approval of their projects for the RESTORE Act within their city limits.”
At the Nov. 1 meeting, Carrabelle commissioner Brenda La Paz questioned whether demanding a dialogue would exclude the cities from participation in the proposed county RESTORE council. She asked if it would be possible to negotiate without going to court.
Hartman told her Carrabelle could not be excluded from participation in the council and that statute 164 is designed to keep government disputes out of court. In a later interview, he said the cities could consider suing the county to force them to the table.
“You cannot underestimate the importance of this amount of money,” Hartman said. “The county’s got way ahead of us on this. None of this is in the RESTORE Act. There’s nothing about these county level councils.”
Floyd said, “Whenever a Florida statute requires a government entity to participate in a conflict resolution, it means what it says. County governments have to comply with the law just like everybody else.”
“Why wouldn’t the county want to sit down and discuss this,” Hartman asked in a telephone interview. “It’s going to have to talk with the local governments. This will save everyone time and money.”
He said his letter to the county “supports Apalachicola’s initial request for negotiation. We will resort to legal remedies which may include seeking a determination by the court that a conflict exists and any remedies available under statute.”
Hartman said the case would be tried in the circuit court and the county could only avoid a court appearance by defaulting.