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Walton County ponders course for RESTORE Act

Oct 10th, 2012 | 0

By DOTTY NIST

“There is no play book,” Doug Darling told county commissioners as they discussed whether to join a consortium of Florida counties affected by the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Representing the Florida Association of Counties (FAC), Darling met with the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) at an Oct. 3 workshop held at the Walton County Courthouse in DeFuniak Springs.

At the time of the workshop, 10 Florida counties had signed up to be part of the consortium. A consortium of counties affected by the 2010 oil spill is required in order to create a plan for one of the “pots of money” expected to be coming to Florida from fines paid by BP for violations of the Clean Water Act.

Darling clarified that the Florida Association of Counties “is not driving this train,” but is working to create the consortium in response to what FAC member counties have asked the organization to do.

Passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Obama in July, the RESTORE Act modified the Clean Water Act with the result that 85 percent of BP’s fines will go into a trust fund for the Gulf Coast states. Darling explained that, without the legislation, all of the fine money would have gone to the federal government.

RESTORE stands for “Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economics.”

RESTORE Act funds are separate from those associated with the Natural Disaster Resource Assessment (NRDA) process. Walton County has submitted a number of projects to the state NRDA trustee for consideration. Escambia County is currently the only county in Florida to receive NRDA funding, but a second round of NRDA funding is imminent.

No RESTORE Act funds are currently available. Darling noted that BP and other responsible parties in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill are scheduled to be in federal court in January. Those proceedings are to determine the level of the fines resulting from the Clean Water Act violations. It has been estimated that the fines will be set at anywhere between $5 billion and $20 billion.

Darling said he believes that BP is trying to negotiate a “package deal” to resolve not only the Clean Water Act violations but monies required in connection with the NRDA process and direct economic claims resulting from the oil spill.

One pot of money, 35 percent of the RESTORE Act Trust Fund, will be allocated directly to the five Gulf Coast states for ecological and economic recovery. Florida’s share, anticipated to be as much as approximately $1.12 billion, will go to the 23 coastal counties, with 75 percent of it going to the eight Gulf Coast counties. The eight counties are termed “disproportionately affected” by the oil spill.

The 23 individual counties will have the ability to decide how these funds coming to them will be spent, as long as proposed projects meet eligible uses set forth in the RESTORE Act. Among eligible purposes are restoration, protection and mitigation of damage to fish, wildlife and natural resources, workforce development, job training programs, and infrastructure benefitting the economy, including port infrastructure. Darling said a federal council will let counties know within 30 days after submission of projects if those projects are eligible.

Using a weighted formula based on shoreline oiled, per capital sales tax, population, and distance from the oil spill, it has been estimated that Walton County could receive as much as approximately $116.5 million from the 35 percent pot of money.

A pot of money known as the “federal pot” amounts to 30 percent of the RESTORE Act Trust Fund. These funds will be administered by the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, composed of federal officials and the governors of Florida, Alabama, Mississipi, Louisiana and Texas. Darling said Florida counties would also be eligible to receive some of these monies, although no standards have been developed for their distribution. Darling noted that indications have been that these funds will go to more regional uses, such as enhancement of fishing opportunities throughout a region. It has been estimated that as much as approximately $6 billion will be allocated to this pot.

A five-percent pot of money will go to a Gulf Coast research, science, technology and fisheries management program.

It is another 30-percent pot of money that is known at the state or “consortium pot.” It is anticipated that Florida may receive as much as approximately $1 billion from this pot.

In Florida, the consortium required by the legislation in connection with these funds is to include a representative from each county considered to have been affected by the oil spill. These are the state’s 23 coastal counties.

Darling explained that in Florida it will be the consortium of counties that will administer these funds. A representative of the local government of each of the 23 counties will be able to, if they choose, sit on the consortium and have a vote on the use of the funds, he commented. Other members will be able to be added to the consortium by vote of the existing members.

Also required in each of the 23 counties is a Local Restore Council (LRC) composed of seven or nine members, which will be tasked with holding public workshops on projects suggested for funding throught the consortium. Walton County’s LRC will bring vetted proposals for projects before the BCC for approval.

District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander has been a strong supporter of Walton County signing on with the consortium. She has warned that, if the counties do not proceed with a consortium voluntarily, Governor Scott will form his own consortium and make his own appointments to fill the seats.

She said of the state, “They would like nothing more than to get their paws on this money and distribute it the way they want to.”

“There’s no one better than us to know what our counties need,” Comander emphasized….

Read the full story in the Oct. 11, 2012 edition of the Herald Breeze.

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