By DOTTY NIST
A newly-renovated first-floor meeting room in the county courthouse seemed conducive to activity when the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) convened for its Jan. 27 regular meeting.
With the economy uppermost in most people’s thoughts these days, the commissioners have been no exception. County Commission Chair Sara Comander read a resolution that had been developed in an effort to prevent the shifting of expenditures and costs of programs from the State of Florida to the local government due to the current state budget shortfall.
The resolution pointed out that the county had been required to make cuts of approximately $11 million in its operating budget over the past two years. and that Walton County, like local governments all over the state, is also being negatively impacted by reduced property values, a reduction in tax revenue and other revenue sources, and higher unemployment.
“Walton County cannot continue to provide the same or enhanced level of service with continued cuts in funding,” the resolution continued, stating concern that the legislature would be imposing new budget cuts and shifting additional costs to local government.
“(A)ny additional cost shifts due to TABOR (Florida Taxpayer Bill of Rights), or State Cost shifts would drastically reduce Walton County’s ability to provide services to its citizens and visitors,” the resolution continued.
It concluded with a request to Gov. Charlie Crist and the legislature not to support legislation that would shift costs and expenditures from the state to local governments, and “that the State review expenditures and program costs that have been shifted to local government and ensure that unfunded mandates have not already been placed upon local government.”
The resolution received unanimous approval from the commissioners.
Mike Burke, county legal counsel, announced that another resolution to the governor and legislators, approved by the commissioners at their last meeting, would be sent out the following day. Also aimed at assisting the local economy, the resolution requests that the Proportional Fair Share Program for traffic concurrency be suspended at this time of economic downturn in order to reduce the costs of potential developments and business expansion.
Proportional fair share provides for payments from developers for funding of future transportation improvements, to allow them to move ahead with their projects when traffic capacity is insufficient. Required payments have been very high in many instances, and often high enough to make projects financially unfeasible. The resolution states that “several individuals and prospective businesses have informed Walton County officials that they cannot move forward with their development or business because of the traffic concurrency cost.”
The resolution concluded, “Also, we ask the State of Florida to look at other fees, as is Walton County, and see if there are ways to reduce the cost to businesses, which will encourage additional economic development opportunities in the State of Florida.”
Also at the Jan. 27 meeting, the commissioners got an update from residents of Driftwood Estates on longstanding stormwater drainage issues in their Mack Bayou-area subdivision.
Driftwood Estates homeowner Alex Kish provided a short history of the problems dating back to 1996. He was critical of recent work by the county aimed at ameliorating drainage problems. Among these measures have been maintenance of ditch flow lines per approved plans and improvement and removal of obstacles from drainage outfall areas.
“The fix isn’t working, it is worse,” Kish said.
A Shipwreck Road homeowner who said she had never had drainage problems before complained, “My front yard is a catastrophe.” She told the commissioners she has standing water in new culverts that were placed on both sides of her driveway, and that the ground is eroding from the water. “I’d just like to have it like it was before,” she pleaded.
Kish called for a return to previous recommendations by Tetra Tech engineering, a firm the county had hired to develop plans to improve stormwater drainage in the subdivision. The county had opted not to go with those plans because the cost would have exceeded several million dollars.
Kish told the commissioners that an MSBU (municipal services benefit unit) enacted in the mid-1990s, when the outer part of the subdivision was being developed, had funded improvements that forestalled problems from that time until around 2003, when development of the interior section began.
He urged them to put an MSBU in place for the interior section and have residents there fund drainage improvements “so they won’t dump on us.”
Greg Graham, county engineer, countered that the entire watershed containing the subdivision has been computer modeled, and that “our analysis demonstrated that the interior does not affect the exterior.”
Graham explained that all drainage outfall structures have been lowered by one-half foot, a recommendation stemming from the modeling analysis. An additional cross drain was added in the vicinity of Harbor Mist Road, he said, and one outfall location has been reworked. Recommended construction of flow channels and additional pop-off outfalls have also been completed, he said.
Graham added that a big part of the “fix” was to be the opening of a currently-blocked historic drainage outfall, owned by the Edmonds family, that the county has been trying to acquire. He predicted that, once that is accomplished, all the remedies should work much better.
Attorney Burke reported that a purchase agreement has been reached with the Edmonds to secure the easement, and that he anticipated it would be executed by Jan. 30.
The commissioners directed staff to move forward with getting that easement opened and to work with ditches which had been complained about by residents as being too deep in standing water. Graham agreed to do so and to see if piping could be used to lower standing water in ditches.
Driftwood Estates community leader Alan Osborne made a request to the commissioners in connection with a second former entrance/exit road to Driftwood Estates that the county had abandoned decades earlier and on which a wall now stands, separating Driftwood Estates from Sandestin Resort. Currenty there is only one access road to Driftwood Estates, a road that residents have complained is subject to flooding.
Osborne said he has applied for a permit to remove the wall on the grounds that he has documentation that Driftwood Estates is part of Sandestin. Some parts of the current Driftwood subdivision were originally approved as part of the Sandestin development of regional impact.
“I still have a private easement,” Osborne said in reference to the abandoned property. “It’s not a county matter…I’m asking you to give me that permit,” he urged the commissioners, “I’m asking you guys not to be in the middle of this.”
“Mr. Osborne may have a private right,” Burke commented. “The onus would be on the private parties,” he said. Burke indicated that it would be up to Osborne to apply to the building department for the permit.
The commissioners viewed information provided regarding the $35-per-year fee for nonresidents using county libraries. There had been complaints from winter visitors that their $8 library lifetime memberships cards were no longer being honored and that instead they were being required to pay the $35 nonresident fee for a card to use the library.
Information provided by the library indicated that issuance of the $8 nonresident cards had begun 1986, 23 years ago, and that Walton County did not begin management of the library system until 2000. The “real annual value” of a library card is estimated at $69.73, based on value of the buildings, utility costs, Internet service, payroll, operating expenses, and value of books and other materials, furniture and computers. It was also revealed that the $35 fee is within the average range for nonresident library cards in Florida. The nonresident fee was initiated in response to a lowering of library revenues that occurred in the 2007-08 fiscal year, including revenues from the county and the state, with state aid having dropped off to one-tenth of the previous amount. According to the information, the revenue generated by the nonresident fee, at its current level, represents 6 percent of the part of the current year budget that is funded essentially by property taxes paid.
The commissioners took no action on the nonresident fee, resulting in it remaining at the $35 level.