By DOTTY NIST
Could casino gambling come to Walton County? A bill recently filed in the Florida Legislature, if passed, would open up that possibility.
According to Florida law, gambling is a crime with misdemeanor or felony penalties associated with it upon conviction, depending on the type of activity, unless the activity is one authorized by state law or one that is set forth as an exception to the law.
Among the exceptions from prohibitions on gambling are the Florida Lottery and other state or national lotteries not in violation of state law.
Another instance of authorized gambling, a.k.a. “gaming” is an April 7, 2010, agreement or “compact” with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The compact authorized slot machines at seven casinos in the state to be operated by the tribe, along with “banked card games” at five of those facilities. These are card games in which the facility operator pays winners, collects from losers, or establishes a bank against which game participants play. The Seminole casinos are located from Tampa south.
In addition, Florida law authorizes state-licensed pari-mutuel facilities such as race tracks and jai-alai facilities to operate card rooms for poker and/or dominoes as long as those games are played “in a non-banking manner,” meaning that participants play against each other and not against the “house” or card room operator.
Also, in 2006, certain licensed pari-mutuel facilities were authorized, when approved by voters in a countywide referendum, to bring in slot machines for their customers. Currently five pari-mutuel facilities, located at Hallandale Beach, Pompano Beach, Miami Gardens, and Flagler Beach, operate slot machines, and each of these runs a card room as well. In 2012 and 2013, a pari-mutuel facility at Hialeah and an additional one at Miami are scheduled to add slot machines. Also, closer to home, the Washington County Kennel Club recently received county commission approval to place a proposition on the Jan. 31 Republican Presidential Primary ballot whereby county voters are to decide on the use of slot machines at the Ebro Greyhound Park.
Now, SB710, filed in the Florida Senate on Oct. 26, proposes to expand “limited gambling,” including slot machines, to “destination resorts” in the state. H487, an identical companion bill, was filed in the Florida House of Representatives on the same date.
The legislation would remove the Division of Pari-mutuel Wagering from the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation, would set up a state Department of Gaming Control, and would create a State Gaming Commission to head up that department. The State Gaming Commission would be empowered to authorize limited gambling at up to three destination resorts.
A destination resort is, according to the bill’s definition, “a mixed-use development consisting of a combination of various tourism amenities and facilities, including, but not limited to, hotels, villas, restaurants, limited gambling facilities, convention facilities, attractions, entertainment facilities, service centers, and shopping centers.”
“Limited gambling,” as defined in the bill, would include not only slot machines but games not authorized for the Seminole casinos, among these roulette and craps. The State Gaming Commission would also have the authority to allow any other game of chance or wagering at its discretion at the destination resorts for which it would license limited gambling.
The commission would accept applications for the licensing of destination resorts, with a nonrefundable application fee of $1 million to accompany each application. Up to three destination resorts, offering limited gambling, would be licensed.
Applicants would be required to demonstrate that they had received “conceptual approval from the municipality and county in which the resort will be located.” Also, the State Gaming Commission would be prohibited from awarding a license for limited gambling in any county where voters had not approved slot machines or limited gambling in a countywide referendum.
The proposed legislation provides for the State Gaming Commission to “select from competing applicants the applicant that best serves the interests of the residents of Florida, based on the potential for economic development presented by the applicant’s proposed investment in infrastructure, such as hotels and other nongaming entertainment facilities, and the applicant’s ability to maximize revenue for the state.”
Destination resorts licensed to offer limited gambling would pay a $50 million one-time licensing fee and a $2 million annual license fee to the Department of Gaming Control. A tax of 10 percent of the resort licensee’s gross receipts would also be required.
As currently written, the legislation does not specify locations for the destination resorts. However, the legislators sponsoring the Senate and House gaming bills represent parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties (Senator Ellyn S. Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale), and Miami-Dade County (Representative Erik Fresen, R-Miami)—and discussion on the legislation has predominantly involved South Florida.
Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, who went on record in opposition to the legislation in early December, warned residents of central and northern Florida that they “could not be more wrong” by continuing to think of the proposed gambling expansion as just a South Florida issue.
“This is an insidious threat, and allowing it in one part of the state is just delaying the inevitable spread to the entire state,” Putnam commented.
“It’s not good for Florida’s families, its not good for future economic growth, it’s not good for the safety and security of our neighborhoods…” Putnam said of the proposal.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi also predicted that this proposed gambling expansion would “only justify the next push” to establish mega-casinos statewide.
No Casinos, an organization opposing the expansion of casinos in Florida, is warning that a “one-word amendment to the bill even during any future legislative session could cause the number of authorized casinos to balloon from three to five or fifty or more.”
Pari-mutuels and the Seminole Tribe of Florida have come out in opposition to the bill, as well, along with the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Disney.
Associated Industries of Florida (AIF), a Tallahassee-based, member-owned nonprofit devoted to the support of the state’s businesses and industries, is a proponent of the bill, estimating that its passage could result in tens of thousands of new jobs.
“People want to get back to work…and they want to get off the unemployment rolls,” commented AIF Vice President Brewster Bevis at a Dec. 6 press conference….
Read the full story in the Jan. 5, 2012 edition of the Herald Breeze.
Countdown continues with Walton County’s 187th birthday
Story and photos by DOTTY NIST
Perfect Florida Panhandle weather for late December set the stage for the annual celebration of the founding of Walton County.
Guests again flocked to the Eastern Lake home of Lane and Brenda Rees on Jan. 29, gathering on their lakefront deck for a sunset toast in honor of the occasion. Refreshments were served inside.
Walton County historian Brenda Rees started the annual tradition in 2004 as a countdown to the 200th anniversary of the county’s founding, which will take place in 2024.
One of the state’s oldest counties, Walton County was the eighth county to be created in the state. It was named for George Walton Jr., secretary of the Territory of West Florida from 1821 to 1826 and later acting governor for the state of Florida. Walton was the son of George Walton Sr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The junior George Walton’s daughter was Octavia Walton LeVert. Brenda Rees describes her as “the most famous belle that you’ve never heard of.” While not well known today, LeVert was renowned as a socialite and writer during the mid-19th century, and was a close friend of prominent politicians and literary figures of the day. She was honored by Edgar Allan Poe with a poem entitled “Octavia.”
In conjunction with the sunset toast at these celebrations, another part of the annual tradition is the recitation of this famous poem:
“When wit, and wine and friends have met
And laughter crowns the festive hour
In vain I struggle to forget
Still does my heart confess thy power
And fondly turn to thee.
But Octavia do not strive to rob
My heart, of all that soothes its pain
The mournful hope that every throb
Will make it break for thee!”
Begining in 2009, one male and one female guest at the Rees’ countdown party have been chosen as honorary George Walton Jr., and Octavia Walton LeVert for the year. The practice was continued this year, with guests having the opportunity to purchase a chance in a drawing by making a $5 donation to the Coastal Branch Library. Guests participating in the drawing received a copy of the Santa Rosa Beach 100th birthday celebration booklet for which Brenda Rees volunteered her time and knowledge to help create. Santa Rosa Beach’s centennial was celebrated in September 2010.
Winners of this year’s drawing were Maxine Sharp as honorary Octavia Walton LeVert and Al Cook as honorary George Walton Jr.
DFS City Council decides to have city staff do city manager background checks
By REID TUCKER
The DeFuniak Springs City Council voted unanimously to have background checks on applicants for the city manager position be handled in-house, rather than by Walton County.
The decision, an about-face from the Council’s previous consensus to approach Walton County’s Human Resources Department to carry out the background checks, came at a specially-held meeting on Thursday, Dec. 29. The reason for the change in opinion was the result of a meeting the previous day between Mayor Harold Carpenter, City Attorney Clayton Adkinson and County Administrator Greg Kisela. Adkinson informed the Council that, in the opinion of Walton County administration, a conflict would exist should the Human Resources Department conduct the background checks, meaning the Council now had to reassess its own decision on the matter.
By way of exploring other options, Adkinson spoke with Superintendent of Schools Carlene Anderson about the possibility of having the background checks on the four city manager candidates be conducted by School District staff. However, Adkinson said little advantage could be gleaned from taking this approach as the School District would charge the city a fee to conduct the same driver’s license checks the city has the capability of performing, but would further have to assign a School District staffer to the task, which could delay the completion of the background check process.
A motion was made by Councilman Mac work to have Michelle Schack, the city’s Human Resources Manager, carry out the background checks “from start to finish,” a process which includes checks with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and contacts with the applicants’ former employers. Adkinson reminded the Council that the person conducting the checks simply gathers the required information and does not make a recommendation to the board.
Councilman Kermit Wright initially supported having the School District perform the background checks in an effort to prevent the city from having any scrutiny brought against it during the process, especially with Interim City Manager Sara Bowers being one of the final four applicants for the full-time position. However, as Bowers’ application and background check had already been completed during the first round of applications, her information would not need to be run again. Wright then joined the rest of the Council in voting 5-0 in favor of having background checks be carried out by city staff.
Schack was set to begin working on the background checks this week with the aim of having them completed in time for the Council’s first regularly scheduled meeting of 2012 on Monday, Jan 9. The Council’s next move will be to set dates to begin conducting interviews with each of the final four candidates for the city manager position.
Bay bridge task force sets meetings
By DOTTY NIST
The panel set up to evaluate options for funding the $75 million local match that is being required for the four laning of the U.S. 331 Choctawhatchee Bay bridge is scheduled to hold its first meeting at 8:30 a.m. on Jan. 5 at the South Walton Tourist Development Council office.
The meeting is open to the public.
Dawn Moliterno, South Walton Tourist Development Council executive director and Walton County’s point person for the U.S. 331 widening effort, commented that the task force has been charged with a very narrow job that must be accomplished in a very short amount of time. This is because their recommendation to county commissioners will be due for presentation at the last Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) meeting in January. That meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. on Jan. 24 at the South Walton Courthouse Annex.
The task force will be looking at two funding options. One would be a $2 toll on the new southbound bridge span on which the state anticipates construction will begin in 2013. The other option would be an 1-percent increase by Walton County in its sales tax. It has been estimated that the proposed toll would continue for a 30-year period. If the sales tax increase is the funding method selected, it has been estimated that bonds that would be sold to initially fund the local match would be paid off in approximately 11 years.
The state Department of Transportation has communicated to Walton County that the over $100 million in federal funding that would be made available to fund the bridge expansion depends on the local match being provided.
Moliterno said Walton County Finance Director William Imfeld would be present at the Jan. 5 task force meeting to provide information to the members.
Task force members include: Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson; Kitty Whitney, Walton Area Chamber of Commerce director; Bonnie McQuiston of the Walton County Taxpayers Association; Wayne Bodie of Florida Transformer; and Lee Grantham of CHELCO.
Moliterno said a 4 p.m. Jan. 11 public workshop would be held at the South Walton Courthouse Annex specifically to take public comments and suggestions on the funding options. She added that it would be up to the task force to decide whether to hold additional meetings prior to their recommendations being presented to county commissioners on Jan. 24.
Sign Ordinance Committee meets before making recommendations to DFS City Council
By REID TUCKER
The DeFuniak Springs Sign Ordinance Committee held a brief meeting on Jan. 2, allowing the public a final say before the committee submits its final recommendation to the DeFuniak Springs City Council next week.
Like all Sign Ordinance Committee meetings, this one was open to the public, something committee chairman Art Dees mentioned in light of a comment he said he received from a member of the community regarding the lack of a prohibition against billboards among the committee’s proposed changes.
Dees said the proposed changes to the ordinance give the city a “buffer zone” against nuisances and that the ordinance was not intended to cover every possible eventuality. Language in the ordinance gives the City Council the right of final review of all questions regarding signage, not least of which involve safety and public nuisances. That said, Dees pointed out that it was not the committee’s purpose to set DeFuniak Springs’ citizens against its business owners.
“This is not business versus citizens by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “We were asked by [the Council] to make recommendations from the business community as to what we would like to see. It will go to a public hearing. It will go before the Council. It will go through the normal process so that everyone will have the opportunity [to participate].
“We are in this together. Citizens benefit from a good business community and vice-versa.”
Only a few areas of the revised sign ordinance proposal were altered from the last review, mainly in the areas dealing with Section 17.03, which addresses off-premises signs, and in the inclusion of Section 17.13, which details permit requirements and the fines associated with not following those requirements.
Section 17.03’s Subsection C was revised to allow “off-premises” signs, those not actually located on the same property as the business for which they advertise, to be located within 100 feet of a residential zone (when measured along the common right-of-way). This is a reduction from the previous wording, which prohibited off-premises signs from being located within 300 feet of residential zones.
Sections associated with permitting are not new to the city’s sign ordinance, but Section 17.13 is new in the sense that the original revised ordinance, first introduced in an streamlined form at the committee’s first meeting on July 14 of last year, did away with the permitting process altogether. Though committee chairman Art Dees said he and the rest of the group did not initially want a permitting process at all, legal concerns regarding enforceability of the new ordinance necessitated the inclusion of sections detailing the process by which business owner could apply for permits.
The permitting process is largely the same as before, only simpler and with less regulation overall. Repairs and replacement of glass or plastic panels can be carried out without a new permit but any major structural alterations will require a new permit. Also, the permit application will still require drawings and specifications of the sign, including size, construction materials, manner of illumination if any and other usual details.
The section also includes a provision for a $100 fine if construction of a sign is begun without first obtaining a permit. Any construction must cease until a proper permit is applied for.
The Sign Ordinance Committee will make its recommendation to the City Council at its next regularly scheduled meeting, the first such meeting of 2012, on Monday, Jan. 9. After that, the Council will begin advertising for public hearings before the new ordinance is put to the vote. It was Dees’ wish that the Council take to heart the changes made to the sign ordinance with the understanding that the changes made reflect the desires of the people of the city and business community alike.
“I hope the Council will see this as the best effort of a combination of citizens of businesses coming together and saying ‘we want to show concern about our city but we also want to allow the opportunity for businesses to, if not prosper, at least survive,’” Dees said. “That’s been the core understanding of this group. I hope that Council will accept this as a first step. I hope they won’t try to re-do what this group has done.”