A major reason for Congressman Steve Southerland’s informational meeting last week at Apalachicola City Hall was to explain the basics of the RESTORE Act, which aims to provide a process for the distribution of BP fines that are estimated to be $5-$20 billion.

When those funds will be available is unknown. Southerland said he hoped a federal judge would hand down a ruling in the case, and fine total, sometime in early 2013.

Under the bill, the RESTORE Act established four so-called “buckets” of money, which Southerland provided a handout on and also explained.

Those four pots of funds established under RESTORE are:

* 35 percent would go directly to impacted counties from funds divided in equal shares to the five Gulf Coast States, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Texas. The money can be spent on environmental projects, job creation and training, flood protection, tourism promotion and infrastructure such as ports. For Florida: 75 percent will go directly to the eight impacted counties, including Gulf and Franklin counties, with 25 percent to all other Florida Counties.

“Every state had input on where they wanted their funds to go,” Southerland said. “We saw that the majority of those funds should go to impacted counties.

This pot of funds also puts on the onus on counties to provide project proposals to the Department of Treasury for approval and to provide a report to Congress 12 months after money disbursement to demonstrate how the money was spent.

Southerland noted to the commissioners at the meeting that if there was to be controversy in their county over how RESTORE funds would be spent, the first pot would be the focus.

“This bill provides local autonomy, local authority, local flexibility over these funds,” he said. “But I caution you, to whom much is given, much is expected.”

* 30 percent will go to a Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, with funds to be used for the development and implementation of a comprehensive restoration plan, created by a federal/state Gulf Coast Restoration Council with all Gulf states represented on the Council. (The five Gulf States' governors and six federal officials from the Interior, Commerce, Agriculture departments, the Army, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard.) Funds will be spent on big ecosystem projects with broad impact. The council sunsets once funds are completely expended.

“I’m proud of this bill because it takes care of the bays, the estuaries, I grew up with,” Southerland said. “This is a golden opportunity to do the right thing at the right time.”

Southerland noted that county and state projects might have overlap and said counties should be aware of state plans when crafting the process for moving forward on county projects. For example, dredging of a particular pass or channel may be part of a state plan and should therefore not be a request from the county.

* 30 percent will be disbursed on an Impact Driven Formula to the Gulf Coast states according to plans submitted by the Gulf Coast states and approved by the council. Thirty percent of the money will be allocated to states based on a formula that approximates how badly each was damaged by the oil spill. (Formula based on average oiled shoreline, proximity to the spill, and average population in coastal counties, with a minimum of 5 percent.) States can spend the money on environmental projects, job creation and training, flood protection and tourism promotion.

“Louisiana had more environmental damage and economic damage,” Southerland said. “Florida suffered economic damage. We were alarmed at the number of vacations that were cancelled. The purpose of RESTORE was not to grow government. This was meant to restore economically and environmentally.”

* 5 percent of the fine funds establish Gulf Coast Centers of Excellence - 2.5 percent of the Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund to be allocated to the states for research within the Gulf Coast region and 2.5 fisheries habitat.

“We still don’t know what is going to happen in the future,” Southerland said. “We don’t know the full ramifications of the bill. This money is to go to the unknowns.”

In part, the bill mandates these funds are used for data collection of fisheries and other habitat along the Gulf Coast. “This bill mandates (the federal government) collect good data and make good, solid decisions based on what that data says,” Southerland said, noting ever-shortening seasons and bag limits for a host of fish species.