By ALICIA LEONARD
Northwest Florida State College’s (NFSC) trustee’s met on May 13 to discuss campus safety measures and the lease agreement over the now-suspended Destin Emergency Operations Center (EOC) plans.
Brian Shonk made a presentation to the committee on safety upgrades for all campuses. The updates on safety had been requested by the board after the shooting of Curtis Brown at the NFSC Chautauqua Center in Defuniak Springs. Shonk told trustees that many short-term safety upgrades were already being put into place and many long-term upgrade were in the process of being realized.
Lighting upgrades from incandescent to compact fluorescent bulbs that will disperse more light and prove more economical in parking lots and low-light areas have already been put into place. An upgrade to the fire alarm system that will allow one-way communications in all buildings, such as a mass-announcement in emergency situations, was almost complete.
Shonk said the purchase of 55 automated external defibrillators (AEDs) was “very important. If someone has a cardiac event, we have a very short timeframe to render help. Every second counts in those circumstances.” Every building on every campus has these available and faculty and staff have been trained to use the AEDs. An upgraded emergency procedure guide has been sent to all campuses with an emergency contact and a new e-mail address where faculty and staff can send security questions.
Funds from the Department of Homeland Security to be dispersed through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) totaling $14,250 will be used to purchase an emergency notification service (ENS). This service will be able to send a text, e-mail or voice-message to thousands of students and faculty members at the same time advising them of the emergency and what they should do to stay safe. An additional $33,000 for an outdoor warning siren has also been awarded. Shonk said of the funding, “It looks very promising and we hope to have these funds come through by the end of the year. These are two systems that are highly recommended. We are not waiting on these funds though, we are still pushing forward on the ENS and trying to get that working by this summer.”
Shonk said the safety committee is looking at a computer desktop emergency system that will allow staff and faculty to have a panic button on their desktops to call for help if something happens in their classrooms or offices. “The cost for these measures has really started to come down and will allow us to expand our safety measures on campus,” Shonk concluded.
The committee moved onto discussing the state of the lease agreement and the fate of the Destin EOC, as well as the return of $310,000 requested by Governor Charlie Crist for the EOC building plans that had come from public education capitol outlay (PECO) funds.
The Trustee’s had approved at their last meeting to agree to return the funds, but requested negotiations with the Crist’s office on how and when to do so. Questions still abound on the legalities of returning funds to Crist’s office that were approved by the Legislature and the funds for the EOC were not removed by the legislature before they closed their session for this year. The $310,000 was requested back by Crist as that had been the only draw on the $6,000,000 approved for the center.
NFSC Trustee attorney Joe Lorenz told the board, “The legislature made the decision to give the college this money and I am hoping that they will guide us as far as what we need to do now. What the long-term effect on the board might be for us refusing to build this center, I don’t know. They have told us to build it and they have not given any notice to stop to the plans. I honestly don’t know what the long-term ramifications of this will be, legally or politically, if we do or don’t honor the governor’s request.”
If the funds are not encumbered by college, the funds will revert back into the PECO pool. Interim president Jill Whilte told the board that she had been in touch with a staffer from Crist’s office, but had not received a formal response to the board’s letter.
According to trustees, the ability to return the funds is still under question because PECO dollars can only be used to build structures and there is not a sufficient amount in the funds balance to return without it impacting students and employees. “We don’t have excess working-capitol sitting around,” said trustee Brian Pennington, “there are different colors of money where the government is concerned and we don’t know about returning one color of money for another. That could get strange.”
Trustee Vercell Vance said, “We told the governor that we have state-approved funds and we need to understand how we are supposed to give this money back. We need an official response before we decide what to do next.”
White agreed, saying, “Mr. Vance is correct, we have received no official response. We sent a letter telling the governor we wanted to honor his request, but his staffers tell me that the letter asking to negotiate how to return the funds is not something that he will probably respond to. They believe the ball is still in our court. I think to get a response that Mr. Vance wants, we will need to write a much more specific response about the actions we will take to return the funds.”
Vance responded, “To ask for money (that’s) appropriated, I’m concerned about some legal issues with this.”
Lorenz said, “The legislature has appropriated $6 million. The other issue is the amount we spent and the governor wants it back.”
Vance asked, “Does the governor have a right to do that?”
Lorenz said, “From the standpoint – and this is no secret – the governor appoints the trustees and the governor wants the money back. It’s no secret if he wants the money back, we are going to give him the money back at some point. That’s no secret. The dilemma is – and I’m not a politician – the governor needs to tell us how he wants us to find the money to send back. From a legal standpoint, you are going to get criticized no matter what you do. It’s already been said to not impact the students, but we are not a business, we don’t make money. We get money for specific purposes and that is where it is spent.”
Pennington asked that the committee suggest to the board to send a letter to the governor and the Legislature requesting the $310,00 be appropriated from next year’s PECO funds that would have been awarded to the colleges as opposed to sending dollars back now. “Anything we send now will impact the students and the services they receive. He needs to respond. He asked us for an action and he needs to respond.”
Chairman Wesley Wilkerson agreed with Pennington’s assessment and suggestion. The committee agreed to make the request of the full board to take action on the suggestion.
This issue of the sub-lease between Destin Jet, Okaloosa County, and the college was the last issue to be discussed. The 40-year sub-lease includes a provision that the payment for the property does not start until the property is fully-utilized with a building and that building is occupied.
Lorenz told the committee, “It would take discussions with Destin Jet and the county to determine if they would be willing to just cancel the lease.” The college would still have the ability to build on the property, according to Lorenz, but the lease states that the building has to be used for a public purpose.
Trustee Joe Henderson said, “Let’s not make it that hard. We are done with Destin (Jet). At least, that’s what I think the general consensus of the board is.”
Lorenz stated that the negotiations over the lease, with the board’s approval, would be between Matt Gatez, who represents Jay Odom for Destin Jet, and the Okaloosa County attorney.
Wilkerson made the motion that Lorenz make contact with the other two attorneys to inquire about the termination of the lease and the board unanimously agreed.
This week, on Tuesday morning during the trustee’s special meeting, the board officially approved sending the letter to Gov. Crist requesting they be allowed to remove the $310,000 in PECO funds from next year’s 2010 budget.
Contact Alicia Leonard at email@example.com.