County agrees to return about $22,700 in donations to Watkins family

Franklin County commissioners have turned to the Capital Area Community Action Agency to succeed Franklin’s Promise Coalition as the ESF-15 emergency support function agency overseeing the administration and disbursement of close to $300,000 raised in the aftermath of the June 24 Lime Rock Road fire.

The Sept. 18 vote was 3-2, with Commissioners Cheryl Sanders and William Massey voting no.

Sanders voiced opposition to the contract drawn up by County Attorney Michael Shuler because it allowed for a $3,500 subsidy to Capital Area, to be paid out of the county’s professional services budget, and not directly out of donations.

“I’m concerned about this because when the ESF 15 contract was discussed, myself and Noah (Lockley) were very explicit we wanted 100 percent of the funds to go to the fire victims in Eastpoint, and we did not want any administrative money paid on this,” she said.

Sanders noted that the previous ESF contractor, Franklin’s Promise, was made up entirely of volunteers “and they didn’t charge nothing.”

In a disagreement over the terms of a proposed contract, Franklin’s Promise last month chose to withdraw as the ESF 15 agency, and has since returned all the funds they gathered to the county, approximately $280,000.

“This ESF 15 organization is a volunteer organization. We shouldn’t be paying money for it,” said Sanders. “I don’t care if it’s Franklin’s Promise, I don’t care if it's CERT (Community Emergency Response Team). We should not have to have no money put in there.

“I don’t think it's right,” she said, adding that she preferred a local entity, rather than one based in Tallahassee, be the ESF 15.

“I would rather it be our local folks who have been here,” Sanders said. “I don’t have no problem with nobody. We need local and we don’t need one penny to go in supplementing somebody’s budget.”

Shuler said none of the donations would be used to pay Capital Area, which he said plans to hire a fulltime local employee at about $30,000 annually. That individual would succeed the late Pat Carroll, who was a longtime Capital Area staffer responsible for assisting local people with utility bills and other essential needs.

Capital Area, directed by Tim Center, administers the local Head Start program, provides utility assistance, and most recently purchased the many former FEMA travel trailers, at a cost of about $200,000, that have provided temporary housing for displaced fire victims.

In a subsequent vote, also 3-2, the commissioners voted to return about $22,700 to organizations connected to the family of the late Ben Watkins.

The return of the money had been asked for by the Watkins family, with their citing the fact that it had been their intention to donate it to a private non-profit entity, and not the government, on behalf of the fire victims.

The funds include a $10,000 donation made by the J. Ben Watkins Private Foundation, and administered by J. Ben “Benjy” Watkins III; a $10,198 donation made by the Community Foundation of North Florida, a non-profit directed by Joy Watkins, wife of J. Ben Watkins III; and a $2,500 donation made by Apalachicola attorney Steve Watkins.

“They genuinely love the people of the county,” said Sanders. “The man is dead and gone. I had high regard for him.

“They’re putting it in there with a heart. They felt the money wasn’t given to the proper thing,” she said. “We went against the purpose of why they put the money in there and I think they deserve the money back. If they want their money they need to have it back.”

Both Noah Lockley and Smokey Parrish voted no on the motion to return all the funds. Parrish said he was not against returning the funds, but wanted it done on a pro-rated basis, as recommended by the county’s accounting firm. He said since some of the money had already been spent on fire victims, that prorated percentage of the donations should not be returned.

“I’m not opposed to giving them the money back, but we’ve spent some of it,” he said.

Steve Watkins said the family intends to reassign the donations to the fire victims, but that it won’t be going to the sheriff’s relief fund, because that too is connected to a government entity.

“Joy is researching it,” he said. “We’ll follow her lead.”