The Franklin County commission Tuesday morning reiterated its support for an $8 million grant from the Triumph board to Florida State University to develop a full-scale plan of action for restoring the Apalachicola Bay ecosystem and its oyster reefs.
But the support was not without misgivings from Chairman Noah Lockley, who was the lone commissioner to vote no.
“I don’t believe in studies, we’ve been studying too long,” he said. “All the money is going to studies. People ain’t got no work. The study ain’t nothing but two three people and they’re professors.
“I’ve been here a long time and seen a lot of studies and haven’t seen no work,” Lockley said. “There ought to be enough paperwork to fill this entire courtroom.”
In presenting the revised proposal, Alan Pierce, the former county planner who now serve as the county’s liaison for securing monies stemming from the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, introduced Billy Buzzett in the audience. A member of the Florida State University board of trustees, Buzzett’s family roots run deep in Franklin County history.
“FSU is going all in,” said Pierce, as he outlined that Susan Skelton, director of the Triumph board, had asked for a new letter of support for the FSU project, on top of its earlier statement of support for the project..
“Since that time FSU has increased its commitment to the Apalachicola Bay System Initiative, as their project is called,” he said, noting that one new clawback provision, which means that the money might have to be returned if its goal is not met, calls for “providing substantive collaborative assistance in entrepreneurial outreach and support to at least 45 different businesses in the impacted counties that are dependent on oysters, other fisheries and the health of Apalachicola Bay, of at least 30 contact hours per entity.”
Pierce said that to accomplish this, FSU has secured the commitment of its College of Business, the new School of Entrepreneurship and the Jim Moran Institute.
He provided a brief overview of the scope of the project, which will include FSU looking at other varieties of oysters, and other locations for reefs, that could help the bay rebound.
“The Apalachicola Bay ecosystem is changing because of human impact, including the loss of freshwater, and the solution to bringing the Bay back to productivity is not to keep doing what has been done in the past - putting shells out there and letting oyster spat repopulate the bars,” Pierce said. “Research needs to be done to see if the lack of freshwater, and the abundance of oyster predators, can be combated in other ways. The goal will be to return the Apalachicola Bay oyster industry back into the position it once held in Franklin County.”
Pierce talked about how whelks, conchs, oyster drills and other predators are devastating the reefs, and that commercially harvesting these predators might be one answer. “It’s just a war zone out there,” he said.
In response to Lockley’s concerns, Pierce said he expects FSU to start off where past scientists have left off.
“I’m sure they’re going to be looking at the past research and not recreating the wheel,” he said, noting that after between $10 million and $14 million spent by the state on shelling the bay, “we’ve seen no productivity. The predators are out there eating the bay up. We have to find some new pathway, and that pathway is research.”
Lockley suggested a gate or some sort of blockage be put in to dam Bob Sikes Cut, which some believe would increase the level of freshwater in the estuary.
Pierce also took a jab at Tallahassee, voicing his view that the state of Florida “has abandoned the oyster industry. They no longer shell, and they’re no longer even concerned who has the licenses. The state of Florida no longer has any interest in the bay recovery or who’s out there harvesting oysters.
“It’s frustrating for you and frustrating for people in the industry,” he said. “They have not been here, and we are forced to look at new directions.”
The project calls for an infusion of $1.5 million in FSU funds to go along with the $8 million in Triumph money. The blended funds would go towards research personnel as well as creation and operation of an experimental oyster hatchery, which along could total about $4.5 million.
“That’s half the money going to studies and my people ain’t working,” said Lockley. “Are they going to guarantee some money back if they don’t find out what’s going on? I still see my people not working.”
Commissioner Ricky Jones reminded his colleagues of the clawback provision, which could require funds be returned, but only if the explicit terms of the contract with Triumph are not met.
“I understand the chairman’s dismay,” said Jones. “Two shelling programs did create temporary jobs, but it (recovery) hasn’t happened and we are having to look at another approach.”
Pierce noted in his report that Franklin County now has a minimum of $15 million that Triumph must allocate to projects in the county, and that in March, the county will be entitled to another $3.2 million when Triumph receives a second BP payment.
“The BP payments will be coming over the next 20 years, and unless the legislature changes the law, Triumph will be reserving 4 percent of whatever funds it receives for Franklin County,” he said, noting that this will amount to $36 million over the next 20 years.
Pierce also noted that a new $15 million fund set up by Triumph to aid the Hurricane Michael impacted counties- Bay, Gulf, Franklin, and Wakulla with tax relief due to the loss of tax base. He said the scenario will have the county report the difference in tax base between the certified 2019 tax roll, and last year’s tax roll, and apply the same millage the TRIUMPH funds would be sought to make up the difference.
“If our tax roll loss for 2019 is the $40 million that Property Appraiser Rhonda Skipper has indicated it could be, the loss to the county would be some $275,000 of tax revenue,” Pierce said. “The school board would have a higher loss because they have a higher millage, and the cities would have smaller losses because they have a smaller tax base.
“In very rough numbers, next year the county might need to seek $1 million of Triumph funding to make up the loss in tax revenue for the county commission, the school board, and the cities,” he said. “Triumph staff indicates tax relief will be approved only for one year at a time. They were very non-committal about future losses. They hope the money is recouped by valuations going up.”