By DOTTY NIST
State government is on the minds of many residents in coastal Walton County, as evidenced by their participation when State Senator Don Gaetz (R-Niceville) recently brought his “Neighborhood Day” to Miramar Beach, Santa Rosa Beach and Point Washington. Gaetz’s district encompasses the coastal portions of five Panhandle counties, extending from Escambia County to Bay County.
Elected to the Florida Senate in 2006, Gaetz regularly takes his office on the road to various areas within his district to meet with and listen to citizens and community leaders.
Part of the senator’s mission, during his Oct. 30 Neighborhood Day in south Walton County, was honoring three schools with certificates in recognition of the “A” ratings they had earned from the Florida Department of Education.
These schools included Emerald Coast Middle School, Van R. Butler Elementary, and Bay Elementary School. Gaetz congratulated students, teachers, and school staff on their achievement and praised Walton County School Superintendent Carlene Anderson for her leadership in taking the county’s school system from a “struggling” to a “high performance” status during her tenure.
Among Gaetz’s activities for the day were individual meetings with citizens at the Walton County Chamber of Commerce Office in Santa Rosa Beach and at Point Washington United Methodist Church.
Brenda Rees of Eastern Lake, a local historian and author, took the opportunity to emphasize the importance of getting word out about the Panhandle’s rich history, including that of Walton County.
“We’re the oldest part of Florida,” Gaetz agreed.
“We are the most historical and the most beautiful part of Florida,” Rees asserted. She complained that the state marketing organization, Visit Florida, “doesn’t do our area justice.”
Rees advocated acquainting the international visitor market with the “real” attractions of Panhandle history and natural beauty. She made the case that doing so would draw these visitors and be a real plus for the local economy.
Rees was one of several residents who spoke for proper management and protection of south Walton County’s unique coastal dune lakes.
Former Walton County Commissioner Van Ness Butler Jr., and wife Johnnie Mae thanked Gaetz for his work and success in getting the historic entrance and road through Eden Gardens State Park reopened to the public, and discussed other concerns in connection with the Point Washington community.
Emmett and Linda Hildreth’s main concern was beachfront homeowners’ inability to obtain state permits for seawalls constructed following Hurricane Dennis in 2005. The couple pointed out that it is not possible to sell or transfer many beachfront homes because these permits have not been obtained by homeowners. Gaetz agreed to meet with the Hildreths to discuss the matter in greater detail and seek a solution.
Gail Carmody of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told Gaetz that there has been positive progress with a plan to “thread” and possibly elevate a bypass road through Eglin Air Force Base, protecting a salamander species that had raised recent concerns. Carmody said that, contrary to reports, her agency had never taken a position regarding the road. She added that additional funding has now been identified for the project through a preliminary agreement with the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority.
Gaetz offered his assistance in facilitating a decision-making process for the proposed bypass.
Several of Gaetz’s constituents congratulated him on his actions to prevent Citizens Property Insurance Corporation from going ahead with a new $100,000 corporate office, fitness club and concierge service in Tallahassee.
“It just outraged me,” Gaetz commented.
He said he would have opposed the move at any time, but thought it was especially inappropriate in a year when “policy holders are trying to tighten their belts.” Gaetz conveyed his objections to the insurance organization in a strong letter and promised to “make them famous” for this expenditure. Soon after those objections were raised, Citizens announced a withdrawal of the plans for the deluxe office complex.
South Walton County resident Dale Jewel questioned Gaetz about the new situation of property taxes going up when the market value of homes is going down.
Gaetz explained that the culprit for this increase is “the recapture rule,” a provision of the 1995 Save Our Homes legislation that is just now coming into play with the current real estate slump. During the years when property values were climbing, Save Our Homes moderated property tax increases by limiting property value assessments on homesteaded property to a three-percent annual increase over each previous year’s assessed value. Property taxes are calculated based on each annual reassessment.
The state revenue department, Gaetz continued, is interpreting a portion of Save Our Homes (the recapture rule) to mean that, on homesteaded property with an assessed value lower than just market value, annual reassessments must automatically increase by that same three percent, despite the current situation of falling market values on property, until assessed value equals market value.
Gaetz has stated his opposition to this interpretation of Save Our Homes by the revenue department. If property taxes are tied to property values, then “if values go down, taxes cannot go up,” he told Jewel.
He added that he plans to propose a constitutional amendment to repeal the recapture rule.
Jewel also brought up the matter of a portion of a driver’s automobile insurance bill going to, in effect, subsidize uninsured and underinsured motorists. He said he had noticed that one-third of his last payment would go toward this purpose.
“I’ve never seen it be that high,” Gaetz commenting, noting that it is in fact illegal to drive without automobile insurance.
Jewel said he was aware that it would not be a popular idea to instate a requirement for underinsured motorists to increase their coverage, but he suggested taking a look at doing that to decrease the financial impact on drivers who maintain adequate coverage. Gaetz pledged to investigate such a requirement.
Kim Lonas of Walton County ARC, Inc., brought up the challenges her organization is facing in connection with transportation of developmentally disadvantaged clients to their workplaces. Lonas said a number of these people, for whom $600-to-800-per-months jobs are available, are stuck at home with no way to get to work.
“There is no public transportation in Walton County,” Lonas complained, adding that she plans to investigate the feasibility of buses or other mass transit to address this problem.
Lonas said her nonprofit organization’s budget has taken “a good hit” for the past two years and is expecting additional cuts.
Gaetz was optimistic that some state revenues to assist ARC could be freed up by the legislature’s pursuing downsizing opportunities with regard to state government, including consolidating certain functions shared by more than one state agency and/or reducing or eliminating entire agencies. He stated his commitment to pursue these opportunities.
Richard Slusher, a ten-year resident of Santa Rosa Beach, shared his disatisfaction with “what’s happening in our nation,” including the absence of a fair (federal income) tax program and the lack of prayer in the public schools.
Gaetz was apprehensive that a Democratic White House victory would take both matters “in the other direction” from that advocated by Slusher.
Slusher expressed concern that Democratic control in Washington would “bankrupt us.”
Gaetz said he had heard some argue that the demise of the Republican Party is at hand, but he was not in agreement, although he admitted that its becoming an “opposition party” is not unlikely. One result could be that the party would take stock and examine how far it has strayed from its core values, he added.
Gaetz was highly critical of the “spendthrift” ways of Republicans in the U.S. Congress. “Federal spending is 47-percent higher today than when Bill Clinton left office,” he complained, “all that has happened under our watch.
“As Republicans, we need to find out again what it means to be a Republican,” Gaetz commented in reference to the party at the national level, “we’ve lost our way.”
BAY ELEMENTARY SCHOOL was one of three schools in south Walton County to be presented with an “A” award certificate on Oct. 30 by State Senator Don Gaetz. From left: Bay Elementary School Principal Gail Pettus; Gaetz; Diana Kish and Melissa Pickering of the Bay Elementary School PTO; and Walton County School Superintendent Carlene Anderson.