Island residents are researching the feasibility of incorporating to form the county’s third city.
On Wednesday, June 25, a group of concerned island citizens led by Newt Colston made a public presentation on what they have learned to date about the possibility of incorporating St. George Island.
More than 50 people attended the meeting and 42 said they were registered voters who live on the island. In a show of hands taken after the presentation, 30 said they would like to investigate further the possibility of incorporation. Only seven said they don’t believe pursuing more information is advisable.
A petition circulated at the meeting stating, “We the residents of St. George Island, petition Franklin County Commissioners and the Franklin County Legislative Delegation to authorize and support the St. George Island Incorporation effort, so that the voters of St. George Island are able to vote in favor of or opposed to incorporating the island as a municipality,” was signed by 25 people, two of whom were not registered voters and island residents.
Colston said the idea of incorporation started following a meeting of the island civic club, but is not directly affiliated with the club.
He told the audience Carol Talley, Chris Jensen, Don Murry and Tom Wood have all taken leadership roles on the incorporation committee.
He said incorporation would benefit island residents by increasing their control of their community’s destiny, putting islanders in control of planning and zoning, and allowing island residents to better protect the island’s fragile habitats. Colston said islanders would enjoy an improved quality of life under self-governance.
The area proposed for incorporation would extend from the western border of Dr. Julian Bruce State Park to Bob Sikes Cut.
Colston said the island has only one representative on the five-person county commission, but provides the county with 48 percent of its income from ad valorem taxes.
If the island incorporates, law enforcement, maintenance of parks and recreation areas, road maintenance, tax collection, elections, building permits and inspection and animal control would all remain under county control.
Colston said if the island determined it wanted additional law enforcement officers, the island government would have to provide funding for salaries.
The county would also continue to provide a landfill, health department, mosquito control and emergency management but the island would develop its own comprehensive land use plan.
If the decision makes it onto a ballot, only registered voters who reside on the island would vote on incorporation. The matter could be brought before voters as early as fall of 2016.
Colston said the first step toward incorporation is developing a detailed plan and gathering signatures on a petition to be presented to the county commission.
Although the state legislature approves requests to put incorporation bids on the ballot, Colston said a letter of support from the county is needed for the request to be considered on the state level. He said Commissioner Pinki Jackel advised the committee that 200-300 signatures would be sufficient to show county commissioners that incorporation has widespread support on the island.
He said the official request to have incorporation placed on a ballot in 2016 must be presented to the legislature on or before Sept. 1, 2015.
Before the incorporation, committee can petition the state for a ballot, they must create a comprehensive development plan, have a system for records management in place, have legal representation and an elected council. He said roughly half of the incorporation requests sent to the state are denied.
Colston estimates the cost of preparing for submission to the state could cost as much as $50,000 but at the Wednesday meeting, he said, “With all the talented people on this island, I don’t think it will cost that much.”
An estimate of the costs
The committee has already consulted both County Planner Alan Pierce and Jackel about incorporation and has reviewed the city budgets of Apalachicola and Carrabelle to estimate the cost of operating a municipal government.
As a municipality, the island would need an administrative staff, an attorney, office space, insurance including utilities and furnishings, and associated costs including a reserve fund.
Colston said he believes the cost of running the city would be between $200,000 and $300,000 annually. If the island incorporates, it must develop a municipal income stream to cover costs.
He said the island couldn’t depend on support from state funding although, as a municipality, it would become eligible for state and possible federal grants that are not available now. For a fee, the municipality could use the county’s grant writer to prepare proposals.
The island could raise funding by increasing property tax for landowners on the island. With an estimated $771 million in taxable value, increasing the tax rate by a quarter mil would produce $192,000 in income. This would add $25 of taxes annually per $100,000 of property value.
As a municipality, the island could also impose utility taxes on providers of electricity and water and communication taxes on providers of phone service, internet or cable television.
Colston said the municipality could also generate income through a sales or business tax. He said tourists would pay for the majority of such an increase. Colston said there are currently 830 rental properties on the island. He said the new municipality could not impose a bed tax without a special exception from the state.
He said the island meets a number of the criteria that legislators will consider in weighing the request for incorporation. It is a “compact and contiguous area,” and is two miles from an existing city.
However, it falls short of the required population size, 1,500. The island currently has 826 registered voters. The island also falls short of the mandated population density of 1.5 residents per acre.
Colston said the legislature has waived these guidelines for other municipalities.
While this is not the first time incorporation for the island has been discussed, attendees at the meeting said the current incorporation committee has done more research into the matter than previous proponents of incorporation.
Some attendees did raise objections to the scheme. One woman said she lived in Destin when it incorporated.
“There, the push to incorporate was to prevent overdevelopment but once (Destin incorporated) the membership of the council changed and everyone rushed to sell their property to the developers,” she said. “Is there anything we can do to ensure this doesn’t streamline development?”
Colston said that issue could be addressed in the municipal charter. “Two realtors told me to make sure that realtors don’t rule the board,” he said. “There should be no more than one at a time.”
Another island resident said, “A huge amount of issues are on the table. (Nobody here tonight) represents a business. Nobody represents (commercial) fishermen. If there’s an emergency and you become a city, you own it. (There should be a) huge cost benefit study. I would hate to see you go down this path and not have enough information. I’m willing to help but I want to see it done for the benefit of the island.”
Colston stressed that “We don’t have all the answers and we’re not pretending we do. There will have another couple of meetings this fall.
The incorporation committee is requesting help from volunteers and seeking signatures on a petition to take before the county commission. In particular, they are looking for help with the financial plan and with the geographic aspects of incorporation.