Movement mounts to have Wakulla County annex the land

You can’t call it secession exactly, it would all have to be done through an orderly process of the Florida Legislature, but there’s a movement afoot to have Alligator Point leave Franklin County and become a part of Wakulla County.

At Wednesday morning’s meeting, Jim McCloy, president of the Alligator Point Taxpayers Association (APTA), urged county commissioners to support a request he has made to State Senator Bill Montford and State Rep. Halsey Beshears to have the Florida Legislature approve the transfer.

“I am very encouraged you have assigned a consultant to oversee repair of the (Alligator Point) road, but I did not start this process of annexation solely because of the road,” said McCloy.

“As a homeowner, I am frustrated,” he said. “The message we have clearly gotten is ‘we don’t have money (for the road). We don’t have any more assets to give you. You have to figure it out.’

“Folks are frustrated,” McCloy said. “There have been a lot of negative comments made by the county commission in the past, and there have been a lot of negative comments made by our citizens about the county commission in the past.”

McCloy said he got a vote of support last month from the APTA board to continue to investigate the option of shifting to Wakulla County, a process he started in October in talks with Montford.

In a report that kicked off the discussion, former county planner Alan Pierce shared background research he had compiled on the matter after Montford had told Commissioner Smokey Parrish that he would sponsor a bill if Franklin County was in support of Wakulla’s annexation.

Pierce said he spoke with McCloy, and Wakulla County administrator Dave Edwards, as well as Property Appraiser Rhonda Skipper and the Supervisor of Elections office in doing his research.

The current boundary under discussion, Pierce said, would include the tax paying areas of Alligator Point as well as the non-taxpaying Bald Point State Park, and some vacant land taxed at an agricultural rate. “The boundary would end at Alligator Harbor but not include Leonard’s Landing boat ramp,” he said. “The exact boundary at the Harbor has not been defined.”

“The central features that would move to Wakulla County would be Bald Point State Park, Bald Point residential area, Sun and Sand mobile home area, Alligator Point residential area, and then several thousand acres of agricultural land,” Pierce said.

Skipper appeared at the meeting with numbers for the county commission. She said based on the county’s 2018 certified values, the entire tax roll is about $1.9 billion, with the portion from Leonard’s Landing to the Panacea bridge, including Bald Point, having a taxable value of $83.7 million.

This, Skipper said, comprises 9.6 percent of the county’s tax base, or about $525,000 in tax dollars for the county alone, not including monies that flow to the schools and to the Alligator Point Water District.

She said the county’s tax base will take a hit this year based on the effect of Hurricane Michael, which struck Alligator Point particularly hard. Skipper said she has not completed the assessment of hurricane damage, but that it is possible this year’s tax base will be smaller than in 2018, which could alter the percentage of overall taxable value from Alligator Point that is lost by the shift.

Pierce said the county budget would have to be reduced by the loss of Alligator Point in order to avoid a tax increase on the remaining property owners. He also noted that, like the rest of the county about half of Alligator Point’s property taxes go towards the sheriff’s office.

In his remarks to commissioners, McCloy argued that Franklin County taxpayers would benefit by the shift of Alligator Point.

“This county does have very limited assets, with very few deputies for an area the size of this county, and only three ambulances from Weems,” he said. “You know way better than I do that you have very limited resources and a huge geographic area.

“We feel isolated,” McCloy. “Some of us understand your frustrations in trying to deliver services, so I took it upon myself as a property owner to approach the legislature.

“This is an opportunity for you to be able to better serve your constituents in Franklin County,” he said. “Here’s a chance where somebody’s willing to take the burden of delivering services to us away from you so you can take those resources and provide them to the citizens you represent.”

In his report, Pierce noted that the school board also receives tax revenue from Alligator Point, and might wish to weigh in. “The school board might be able to recoup their loss in tax revenue if the state would include Franklin County in the sparsity allocation approved by the legislature,” he said.

In terms of fire protection, Pierce said “the funding and structure of the Alligator Point Fire Department would be uncertain as Wakulla County has its own existing fire departments. Wakulla County has a higher fire tax assessment.

He said that it is unclear as of yet whether the Alligator Point Fire Department would continue to respond to fires in St. Teresa, or if that fire response would move to the Lanark Village and Carrabelle fire departments.

Pierce said the annexed area has about 200 rental units that contribute to the Franklin County Tourist Development Council and represent about 10 percent of the TDC bed tax collection. “Wakulla County also has a TDC, but it only has about 200 houses so the Wakulla County TDC could see a significant increase in their TDC,” he said.

Unlike Franklin County, Wakulla County also has a mandatory garbage fee, he said.

In terms of politics, The Alligator Point precinct has 384 registered voters, so in the event of annexation, the county commission and school board district lines would have to be redrawn. Currently each district has approximately 1,700 voters, so with annexation, each district would shrink by some 78 voters, Pierce said, also noting that Wakulla has a population of about 31,000 residents, almost triple the population of Franklin County.

Pierce said the service area of the Franklin County emergency services would shrink as EMS calls on Alligator Point would be dispatched from the Wakulla County Sheriff’s Office. “EMS calls on Alligator Point would probably not come to Weems Hospital, but it would depend on the medical emergency,” Pierce said.

The most high-profile issue, that of Alligator Point Road, commonly known as County Road 370 or Alligator Drive, would become the property of Wakulla County. “Since the road has suffered hurricane damage while it was in Franklin County, it is not clear who would be responsible for fixing the road if it was annexed into Wakulla County,” Pierce said, noting that repairs could now run about $5 million, with a county’s local match of 12.5 percent being about $625,000.

“Which county will be willing to allocate $625,000 of local funds to repair the road?” he asked.

Pierce acknowledged that the county spends “an extraordinary share” of the road department budget maintaining Alligator Drive. “The solution to the Alligator Point Road is still for the state to assume ownership, but at this time an annexation by Wakulla County would not move that issue forward,” he said. “Alligator Point does not generate any gas tax revenue for Franklin County, as there are no gas stations in the proposed annexation area, so there would be no loss in gas tax revenue to the county if annexation occurred.”

Commissioner William Massey, who chaired the meeting in the absence of Noah Lockley, who had a previously scheduled doctor’s appointment, said he had spoken with a Wakulla County commissioner, who indicated that Wakulla had no interest in annexation until the road repair issue was resolved.

Commissioner Bert Boldt, who represents Alligator Point and is himself a resident, moved that the county commission request that Montford wait a year before introducing any legislation, to give the county time to research the matter.

Commissioner Parrish led the opposition, arguing that he was against continuing to spend county funds on Alligator Point only to have the land switch over afterwards. “We don’t know what people want,” he said.

Boldt withdrew his motion to table the discussion for a year, and then moved to oppose annexation and withdrew that as well after colleagues indicated they wanted to hear from constituents.

By unanimous consent, the commissioners scheduled a public hearing at the courthouse annex for 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 15 to hear directly from Alligator Point residents.

McCloy asked that the meeting be held in Alligator Point, and Boldt encouraged that, but the commissioners chose to keep it in Apalachicola.

Parrish, half-jokingly, said he would be against moving the meeting unless a deputy was present. “There’s been too many unruly meetings,” he said. “They think we don’t do anything. We’re doing all we can with the resources we have available.”