You might as well have called it the “legislative delegate” meeting, rather than the traditional legislative delegation term, since State Senator Bill Montford cast a solitary shadow at last week’s meeting.
Because State Representative Halsey Beshears has assumed the reins of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, and the elections to determine his successor won’t be completed until after the legislative session ends, Montford will be the lone legislator representing Franklin County in the upcoming session.
Despite limited advance notice, a large audience attended the Jan. 30 meeting in the county commission chambers. A second official meeting will be held later this month. on Wednesday, Feb. 27, at 6:30 p.m. in the county commission meeting room at the courthouse annex in Apalachicola.
“I take full responsibility,” said Montford, noting that while there was nothing wrong legally with holding the meeting, he felt it important to give county residents a second bite at the apple.
“Consider this a town hall meeting,” he said. “We’ll have another before the March 1 deadline, so I don’t want you to think you’re seeing double. We will be advertising that and sending you an invitation to come back at another date.”
Montford began by taking “a moment of special privilege to thank you for the assistance and help you’ve extended to our friends west of here.
“Those of you who travelled to the west know how devastating it’s been west of here,” he said. “It’s going to be a long, long haul back to normalcy for this part of Florida. We won’t bounce right back.”
Montford said that estimates indicate that after Hurricane Irma the entire region collected 1.7 million cubic yards of debris, compared to the current totals for Bay County alone, which has already picked up 25 million yards from Hurricane Michael alone.
“That shows the magnitude of the problem,” he said. “All the storms in the last 10 years, combined, have been less than what’s been picked up in Bay County alone.
“Inland you find the same degree of destruction,” Montford said. “I have been to places I’ve been all my life and I didn’t recognize them.
“The challenge has been to convince my colleagues in the Senate just how devastating this storm has been. It was a very unique storm,” he said. “It hit at two mph below a Category 5. The National Weather Service reevaluates the data and it is possible it will be reclassified as a 5. The data shows there were wind gusts within it of up to 210 mph. This was a really, really unique storm.
“The nice thing is it’s brought out the best in people. Help has come from all over the state and it’s still coming. God’s good gift comes out in a lot of people,” Montford said.
Apalachicola leads requests
Mayor Van W. Johnson, Sr. spoke on behalf of the evening’s largest request, the city’s wanting support for the proposed “The Apalachicola Environmental Stewardship Bill.” Modeled after the success the Keys, the state’s only other populated Area of Critical State Concern” have had in attracting millions of dollars, the bill will establish a funding mechanism to enable the city to improve, repair or replace its wastewater, potable water, and stormwater systems, and help provide workforce housing.
Johnson said the city is asking for a one-time allocation of $17 million for the wastewater and stormwater infrastructure, which will have the additional effect of protecting the nearshore water quality of Apalachicola Bay.
The bill also requests a one-time state allocation of $1.6 million to install a state-mandated filtration system to bring the levels of trihalomethanes into compliance with federal standards.
The bill also seeks a $4 million per year allocation over the next decade for land acquisition and capital improvements to facilitate public access, further enabling the city to protect water quality, Johnson said.
The city also seeks a change to the statutes governing the Tourist Impact Tax that is allowed for an Area of Critical State Concern, which governs only the city since the county two decades ago decided to get rid of the designation.
“The proposed statute amendments would require the approval of a city-wide rather than a county-wide referendum, allow the city to retain 100 percent of the funds, and support the naming of a local municipal decision-making body,” said the mayor. “It is important to note that (this tax) can be levied only within Areas of Critical State Concern.”
If approved through a city-wide referendum, this 1 percent bed tax levied on visitors would generate an estimated $130,000 annually for ongoing infrastructure improvements and/or workforce housing projects within the city.
In making the case as to why the city warrants these legislative changes, Johnson pointed to the hiring of Ron Nalley as the city manager, and to the hike in water and sewer rates that address operations as well as debt service. “Our monthly expenditures in those two departments have been trimmed by almost 40 percent since July,” the mayor told Montford.
In addition, he said the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is weighing loan amendment for the city that would restructure the city existing loan, and freeze late fees and fines associated with the default.
“A lot of significant progress has been made in a relatively short period of time to shore up the city’s financial position, but there’s still a whole lot of work to do,” Johnson said. “We are now faced with a dire need to repair, upgrade and replace areas of our aging, fragile and failing infrastructure. If these areas are not immediately addressed, they will severely impact the quality of life of every man, women, and child that live, work and visit Apalachicola, with no exception, and I remind you, just like in the past there are no local dollars available to accomplish this task.
“The complete failure of these critical areas in our infrastructure has the potential to completely close our business district to commerce and to shut down Apalachicola Bay, both of which are the lifeblood of our local economy,” Johnson said.
Following the mayor’s remarks, Montford did not comment on the proposal, other than to urge the city to continue to pursue Triumph monies. “I wouldn’t give up with that choice,” he said. “Don’t give up on Triumph.”
At Tuesday evening’s city commission meeting, Nalley said that while the city is continuing to search for the bill’s sponsor in the House, since Beshears is not there, Montford has agreed to sponsor a Senate bill for the budget request.
Johnson asks to modernize clerks’ funding
Also providing a lengthy request was Clerk of Courts Marcia Johnson, who spoke on behalf of clerks throughout the state. Johnson is a past president of the statewide clerks’ association.
“Florida’s clerks, like me, provide critical services that affect public safety, commerce, and access to justice. Our core services are at risk due to an outdated budget process,” she said.
She said Sen. Jeff Brandes has agreed to sponsor a bill that would address a sharp decrease in revenue from traffic tickets and other revenue-generating cases.
“Our budgets are based on revenue projections alone, but revenue-generating cases, like traffic citations, are actually decreasing,” she said. “In my office, in the fiscal year 16-17, we filed 1,095 traffic cases while in 17-18, we filed 674 traffic cases, and in the first quarter of 18-19, we filed a mere 121 cases.
“As revenues fall, so do our budgets, and this revenue-based budget does not account for the workload, needs, or costs of the modern clerk’s office,” Johnson said. “When this budget process was built, it was thought that those who paid to access the justice system would fund all services clerks provide, and today, that’s not the reality.
“Domestic violence injunctions, mental health, and substance abuse cases are no-fee cases, and those who are determined indigent have fees waived. While this is good public policy, the revenue-generating cases that used to fund these other high-cost, high-workload services are gone,” she said.
Johnson said that in Franklin, 105 indigency cases were filed in the 17-18 fiscal year in the civil and probate division, which amounted to $20,475 in fees waived. Her office in the 17-18 fiscal year filed 121 no-fee cases, such as injunctions, Baker Act, and substance abuse matters, and this amounted to $23,595 in potential funds.
“Compounding our problem is clerks have no statutory authority to maintain a reserve,” Johnson said.
The proposed bill requests that clerks be granted the ability to retain earned revenues and maintain reserves, reimburses clerks for no-fee services that protect vulnerable populations; creates flexibility through a statutory process where clerks can request funding for tasks required by justice partners and state policymakers; and recognizes actual needs and costs of services in the budget, rather than relying solely on revenue estimating conference projections.
Carl Whaley, vice chair of the county school board, Fonda Davis, school board member, and Superintendent Traci Moses, all addressed the meeting on behalf of the schools.
Whaley thanked the state for what’s being done to make the state roads passable, and asked for a stepped-up timetable. “My concern is we're still driving on roads damaged by Hurricane Dennis in 2005. My concern is for the 1,000 students that travel these roads 180 days of the year,” he said.
He said there has been damage to the district’s fleet of 17 buses. “Potholes left from Hurricane Michael are pretty significant,” said Whaley. “We have replaced several tires and have had other mechanical issues go wrong with our buses. I ask that the legislature stay diligent in repairs of the roads and look at more permanent repair of State Road 30.”
Moses thanked Montford, a former school superintendent, with being a champion for education, and said the need to replace sparsity funding, which a few years ago was done away with, tops the district’s wish list.
“It would be about $800,000 for our school district,” Moses said.
She advocated for full funding for the Panhandle Area Educational Consortium, and asked for back for Senate Bill 152, which would lead to higher teachers’ salaries in the district.
“We already know our teachers aren’t paid what we would like to pay them,” Moses said. “We have other battles like affordable housing.”
She described the district soon breaking ground for a new vocational education facility, which would enhance welding, and nursing offerings, as well as building construction.
“Hopefully we’ll build some housing to sustain our teachers,” Moses said. “I live in a home built in the 90s by the carpentry class.”
Montford responded by noting how the state has gradually moved away from vocational education, and is now returning to it.
“We slipped into a mindset that you have to go to college,” he said. “Some of the brightest kids I ever had did not go to college. I have for former students who own their own plumbing business, and I don’t get a break.
“We moved away from that, but we’re recognizing there is honor in going into trades,” he said. “I’m glad we’re moving back in that direction.”
Eastpoint water wants to expand boundaries
Billy Fuentes, administrator of the Eastpoint Water and Sewer District, asked that Montford help with changes to the rules governing the small independent special taxing district.
“The biggest issue is the charter was not amended as it should have been in 1986. Portions are missing that we need assistance to fix,” he said. “We do not have enforcement powers to deal with double connections, people that take advantage of connections.”
Fuentes said he would like to amend the charter to give the district power to take action on these connections. He said that while there is a surcharge for users who live outside the district’s boundaries, “we would like to expand our boundaries to do away with the surcharge. This would lower the bills for people there but we need help in the legislature to accomplish that.”
County Commission Chair Noah Lockley and Commissioner Smokey Parrish both appealed for help in funding the replacement of the county’s emergency management office near the Apalachicola airport.
“The building was built in 1970, and it’s not up to code or nothing,” said Lockley, noting that the county is seeking 75 percent of the total funding. “We're the only ones on the coast that don't have an up to date emergency management building.
“I don’t think that one there can withstand 90 mph winds. It’s not safe for the people, it’s an accident waiting to happen,” he said.
Lockley also appealed for help with funding for a fire sprinkler system at Fort Coombs Armory, which will cost at least $300,000. He said the county has a local match of $100,000 but needs about $160,000 to complete the project.
He also noted that “a lot of people, their cars are messing going back and forth to work. We’re not trying to be fussy or anything but if there’s any way they can speed up the process, the surface needs to be fixed. It’s causing people a hardship.”
Carrabelle Mayor Brenda La Paz asked for help in funding an extension of water to Lighthouse Estates. She said the sept tank abatement portion of the project has been fully funded by the Northwest Florida Water Management District.
She said $851,000 in funding includes removal of 53 septic systems and to construct extension of central sewer, in close proximity to sensitive areas near the shoreline.
La Paz said water funding is not available through the Restore and Triumph funds from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
“We could ask rate payers, but that would require system wide rate increases,” she said, noting that the city is seeking about $590,000 in funding.
Montford said he was pleasantly surprised that that funding is all that it would take to bring water to these homes.