In a surprising reversal of past policy, the county commission voted unanimously, on Feb. 19, to join the Florida Consortium.

The consortium is a joint public entity formed by interlocal agreement among the 23 Florida county governments bordering the Gulf on Oct. 19, 2012. The first meeting was held on Oct. 22. Each member county is entitled to appoint one member on the consortium’s board of directors. The consortium’s creation was mandated by Florida law.

Tuesday’s decision will allow Franklin County to vote on issues considered by the consortium. Franklin County is the last of the 23 counties to join.

The consortium will oversee distribution of the 35 percent portion of RESTORE Act funds awarded directly to impacted counties. That money can be spent on environmental projects, job creation and training, flood protection, tourism promotion and infrastructure.

Unlike the other Gulf States’ plans, in Florida, three-quarters of the county money will go directly to the eight impacted counties, including Franklin. The eight directly impacted counties have been ranked by the Florida Association of Counties (FAC) and funds will be awarded based on a formula factoring such things as amount of damage, population and length of coastline. Under that formula, Franklin County, ranked sixth of the eight, receives 8.4 percent of the total funding. How much money the county will receive is still unclear but estimates place the figure at around $50 million.

Now that the county has joined the consortium, it will receive an invoice from FAC for $3,840, our share of the cost of maintaining an office and lobbyist in Tallahassee over the last four months. According to a report published by FAC the cost of maintaining Tallahassee representation is about $10,000 monthly and a second invoice will be issued in March.

In Oct. of last year, Commissioner Smokey Parrish resigned his position of liaison for the county in negotiations over the BP settlement, after the commission voted three to two with Commissioners Pinki Jackel, Cheryl Sanders and Bevin Putnal opposed, not to join the consortium because of an affront suffered by Jackel and Sanders at an FAC meeting.

Before that vote, Sanders said, “I was blindsided when I went down south. I have never been so disrespected in all my life. One of the lobbyists did not like myself and Ms. Jackel’s objections. He’s supposed to be representing us. He used some very awful terms. When he said what he did to me and Commissioner Jackel, he stepped over the line. That made me wonder what is this all up to.”

Sanders said cost of maintaining staff and an office for the consortium in Tallahassee could amount to $200,000 over a year. She expressed concern that large south Florida counties would seize control of RESTORE funds. “As it reads in these papers, there will be a board made up of five people from these 23 counties,” she said. “That tells me that somebody won’t have a seat at the table.”

But on Tuesday, apparently all objections and concerns were dropped. Commissioner William Massey made the motion to join the consortium at the end of Director of Administrative Services Alan Pierce’s report and it passed without discussion. The motion was seconded by Noah Lockley.

The county must now choose a representative to attend consortium meetings. Since Parrish’s resignation, that duty has fallen to Pierce.

At the Feb. 19 meeting, prior to the vote to join the consortium, Pierce told commissioners he would attend the next consortium meeting to be held at the Gulf Coast College campus in Panama City on Feb. 28. He said the meeting was important to the county because the restoration of the bay might be discussed.

Pierce said. “The county has received emails from Congressman Southerland informing the Board that Governor Scott has asked DEP to propose restoration projects that will access funds allocated to projects of Gulf-wide significance.  The Board may recall that the RESTORE Act allocates money into 3 pots.  One pot, 35 percent of the funds, will go directly to the impacted counties, a second pot, 30 percent, will go to a consortium of counties, and a third pot, 30 percent, will go to projects of a Gulf-wide significance.  DEP will be generating a list of projects for that 3rd pot, and it is my understanding that there will be discussion of this 3rd pot at the Feb. 28 meeting in Panama City.  I believe the restoration of the Apalachicola Bay oyster industry would be a strong candidate for a project of Gulf-wide significance.”

At the same Oct. meeting where membership in the consortium was rejected, following a motion by Jackel the commission voted three to two to establish a county RESTORE Council. Lockley and Parrish opposed the motion.

The RESTORE Council will 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. The Franklin County RESTORE Council was based on a format borrowed from Wakulla County. About half of the Gulf coast counties have formed these councils.

Debate over the make-up of the county RESTORE council was prolonged and heated. In January, after two months of bickering, Pierce presented a format that was accepted by all five commissioners.

With 11 of the 13 council seats filled, the commission is expected to set a date for the first RESTORE council meeting at their March 5 meeting.