Last week’s legislative delegation hearing was much more about the infrastructure of Franklin County’s two cities than it was about county business.
The mayors of Apalachicola and Carrabelle, with the assistance of contracted experts, took to the podium at the Jan. 5 hearing to make their appeals to State Sen. Bill Montford and State Rep. Halsey Beshears for state help.
The three biggest county departments, the county, schools and courts, were all represented, as were three of the county’s most prominent non-government recipients of state and federal monies - the health department, Eastpoint Medical Center and Franklin’s Promise Coalition.
But that was pretty much it. The tax collector, property appraiser and supervisor of elections offices did not attend. Nor was there anyone there from Weems Memorial Hospital or the Tourist Development Council. Nor were there any citizens who stepped forward to offer an idea or voice a complaint.
The hearing at the courthouse annex offered the annual opportunity for locals to speak out on state matters, and for their representatives in Tallahassee to listen, which they both did very well.
Montford, a conservative Democrat who tallied a surprisingly narrow majority from county voters in the November election against a little-known Republican opponent he easily defeated district wide to win a third term, commanded the evening.
The jovial former school superintendent sat alongside Beshears, who was unopposed in the general election. A couple decades the senator’s junior, the amiable nursery grower from Monticello is a conservative Republican now entering his third term.
For the most part the evening was light with pleasantries, the two men reaffirming ties with constituents while lauding their veteran legislative assistants, Marcia Mathis for Montford, and Vicky Summerhill for Beshears, the ladies with whom most local officials and community activists interface on an ongoing basis.
The hearing opened with presentations from Clerk of Courts Marcia Johnson, County Chairman Smokey Parrish, Sheriff A.J. Smith and School Board Member Carl Whaley, who was standing in for Superintendent Traci Moses, who was at a Seahawks boys basketball game.
The three spoke of their ongoing needs, with Johnson referencing a state bill intended to reverse cutbacks in court monies; Parrish asking for a funding continuation of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s oyster check stations; and Whaley calling for a second emergency exit to school grounds that could be helpful in the event a storm washed out U.S. 98.
There was also extensive remarks from Joe Taylor, who boasted of the success of the Conservation Corps in his capacity as director of the non-profit Franklin’s Promise, and comments from David Walker, with the county health department, and Amy Anderson and Katrina Saunders, representing the North Florida Medical Centers, all of whom cited stats on their success in providing health-related services..
But the two most detailed presentations were from Apalachicola and Carrabelle, arguing for matters pertaining to their sewer systems and airport, respectively.
Johnson seeks sewer loan forgiveness
The Apalachicola mayor referred first to a proposal to have the state assist in the replacement of the roof over the youth center, the former Matchbox gymnasium. He said Parrish has advised him that if the project were tied to tourism, it could possibly qualify for TDC monies.
The thrust of Johnson’s appeal, though, concerned what he called “a longstanding issue with the state revolving loan fund.” To review the specifics, he turned to consultant Bill McCartney, a former city engineer whose work on the issue dates back to the 1970s, and through the 1980s, until it was during the administration of the late mayor Bobby Howell in 1994 the city first obtained millions of dollars in funding for a series of wastewater improvements.
Back then the city was awarded the first chunk of $9.25 million in loan funds including capitalized interest, according to Jess Boyd, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Howell agreed to amendments to agreement in 1997 and 1998, as did Mayor Alan Pierce in 2000 and 2001, and Mayor Sandy Howze in 2000 and 2001.
Johnson last amended the agreement in 2012, but two years ago, he froze the city’s repayment plan at that level, enabling the city to pay interest but not reduce the principal. The mayor argues city residents have been socked with a sewer surcharge to help in repaying the loan, but should not be subject to an even higher surcharge since much of the repayment arrangement was conditioned on high interest rates that flattened out some years ago.
“We’re not going up on it (the surcharge) anymore,” Johnson said in an interview last week. “We haven’t gone up on it in the last two years. It’s still generating money that’s going towards the payment, but we’re just not paying the full payment
“Rather than going up on the surcharge, we decided we’d rather fight the state,” he said.
Over time, Boyd said, between the escrow account and city contributions, $5.48 million has been repaid toward principal, with the current balance owed $3.91 million, including interest due.
“There have been ongoing discussions with the city and the Department of Environmental Protection regarding the unpaid balance,” she said.
McCartney outlined for the legislators the roots of the funding, which grew out of the city’s being named by the state as “an area of critical state concern,” a designation it still maintains.
“That was a fundamental change, and a trade-off was made,” he said. “Apalachicola reduced the potential for development in exchange for state assistance.”
McCartney said he and Howell met with legislators, including State Senator Pat Thomas, with the idea being at the time of the original loan, for $4 million to be put into escrow, so that interest would pay off the debt incurred by the city to the state revolving loan fund.
This arrangement worked for more than a decade, McCartney said, but after interest rates fell, the city in 2013 defaulted on the loan.
He has proposed, in talks with the DEP and with the legislators, making what he terms “a ledger transfer.” The idea is that with targeted legislation, the city could take advantage of grant monies from a small community disadvantaged community wastewater fund that was created two years after the original loan, in 1999, and for which the Apalachicola sewer project was not initially eligible.
“One of the ways is by giving a special designation in grant requirements for areas of critical state concern, and to let the funds apply to all wastewater improvements. Now it’s only for new construction,” said McCartney. “We’re the only ones that meet that criteria.”
La Paz asks for airport help
In her presentation, Carrabelle Mayor Brenda La Paz opened by touting an array of 22 infrastructure projects the city completed last year, including resurfacing seven roadways, completing major boat ramp improvements, and removing several blighted buildings.
“A boat ramp parking lot for 35 trucks with boat trailers is currently in the design phase, along with seven other major projects approved and funded, set to begin in early this year,” she said.
La Paz focused mainly on the Carrabelle Airport, which she said “has an important role in the economic development of the entire east side of Franklin County and the southwest part of Wakulla County.”
She reminded legislators the airport has a 4,000-foot runway that has room for expansion, and has seen an increase in air traffic. “But the facilities and infrastructure remain deficient and inadequate,” said La Paz.
She said the airport would like to receive FAA National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS) funding, similar to funding that goes to seven similar rural airports, which each average an annual non-primary entitlement of $150,000 from the FAA.
“The annual non-primary entitlement for the Carrabelle Airport is zero,” said La Paz. “The city and Carrabelle Aviation Advisory Board bring this issue to your attention so you will be aware of the needs of the airport and will recognize the positive economic impact that can be brought to Carrabelle and the surrounding community by upgrading our airport to the standards of the other publically owned general aviation airports of similar size.
While the matter of qualifying for FAA money is a federal matter, it would require the support of the Florida Department of Transportation. La Paz said the state aviation manager and his staff will visit the airport this month to discuss the city’s plans.
To assist in rejuvenation of the airport, La Paz said it is necessary for the Florida legislature to approve a bill dissolving the Carrabelle Port and Airport Authority. First created in 1986, the authority has been inactive for 16 years, she said, noting that during this time, there have been no nominating committees appointed by the governing body, and no gubernatorial appointments.
The authority “has not conducted meetings or taken any action in over 16 years. No taxes or fees are collected with which to manage and fund this special district,” she said. “Bringing the authority into compliance would be a huge and costly task for our small town.”
Instead, Beshears has agreed to sponsor a bill dissolving the authority. Both the Carrabelle city commission and the county commission have supported the move.
Following the hearing, s brief session was held to hear any comments from the audience on this proposed bill, None were forthcoming.
La Paz extended an invitation to the legislators to a March 11 fly-In event at the airport, to be coordinated with the Camp Gordon Johnston Days Parade to attract hundreds of visitors.
La Paz also sought support for a 2017 budget request for funding of extension of central water and sewer to the Lighthouse Estates subdivision.
“The Northwest Florida Water Management District has indicated their full support in funding central sewer in Lighthouse Estates,” she said. “Legislative assistance for funding of central water extension will complement the initiatives of the water management district and provide the residents of Lighthouse Estates with clean and safe drinking water.”
Russell Large, engineer with Inovia Consulting Group, said the project would lead to the removal of 53 existing septic tank systems and connecting residents to central water and sewer, as well as eliminating concern over protecting water wells and for fire protection.
He said the subdivision’s 150 acres are all in close proximity to the bay. “It’s a win for the sensitive water body of St. George Sound, a win for the city and a win for local residents,” Large said.