By REID TUCKER
Note: This story is the fifth and final part of a series derived from interviews with the members of the DeFuniak Springs City Council. This week’s article comes from an interview with Councilman Wayne Graham. DeFuniak Springs City Councilman Wayne Graham was born and raised in the city and has seen it go through changes over the years, though in a lot of ways the best things about it stayed the same. Good as things were and still are, he feels DeFuniak can look forward to even better days ahead.
The local economy is showing signs of a turnaround, with new businesses opening and existing ones expanding thanks to cooperation between the business community and local government. Key infrastructure renovation is already underway, with several projects, like the one to repave U.S. 90 and one installing new water and sewer line, to be completed within the year, while others, like the U.S. 331 widening, are geared to start up next spring. Local charities and civic organizations in the community are flourishing, and activities for residents young and old are coming on line every day.
From Graham’s perspective, the future looks bright indeed.
After retiring in 2005 from a 21-year career with the Department of Justice, Graham went on to run for a seat on the City Council in 2007 and, defeating the incumbent, has kept his seat ever since. He said that after two years of retirement he felt like he’d rested enough. DeFuniak had been good to him and it was time to return the favor.
“I wanted to come home and be active in the city and help the people as best I could,” Graham said. “I wanted to try to give back to the community for all I received growing up. DeFuniak Springs is a unique city. It’s got its give-and-take moments like any place does, but all in all it’s the best place to live I know of.”
When he ran for office the first time his platform stressed the needs of the youngest and oldest citizens of the city, as those two groups often get lost in the mix when it comes to local policy. However, he credits the whole Council of that time for helping organizations like the Boys & Girls Club and the Life Enrichment Senior Center to be successful.
“I definitely wanted for there to be more things for the young people and the older people to do,” he said. “Nowadays our Boys & Girls Club is growing and our Senior Center is doing very well. Those places are always, always busy. I think those are two things that the other Council members and I accomplished together.”
Graham’s term is up next spring, and for now he plans to run again, his emphasis this time being on keeping the budget in line while not cutting services to residents and expanding the reach of recreational activities for all ages. Unfortunately, that will probably mean asking city workers to continue to do more with less in the name of retaining employment. Furthermore, he, and indeed the rest of the Council, agreed to rein in spending by having the city manager approve all non-emergency spending.
“We have to make sure we look at our budget and do the right thing,” Graham said. “We have to make sure that our day to day operation is running smoothly and that we have the money to keep it that way. We’re going to have to continue watching our spending too, but we don’t want to cut services to our citizens unless we absolutely have to.”
As far as the business climate goes, Graham is in favor of working closely with business owners, as he feels this is a proven recipe for success, as demonstrated with the heavily amended sign ordinance passed since last year. Specifically, he feels the historic district maintenance ordinance tabled at last week’s meeting went too far by calling for potentially costly renovations many small businesses downtown may not be able to afford.
“I think we need to have a workshop with [downtown business owners] to develop a committee like we had with the signage ordinance to see if we can work out a solution that will be beneficial to everybody,” Graham said. “We on the Council want to continue to see our downtown businesses stay open and grow and for the city to attract new businesses. We don’t want to put too many regulations on them so that they can’t afford to do that.”
Courting new businesses is a little easier said than done, as the old issues of relatively small population figures hinder working out a deal with firms capable of being a major employer. However, the recent grand opening of Tractor Supply Company and the imminent arrival of other retailers and restaurants (Hibbet Sports and Taco Bell among them) are steps in the right direction, he says. Also, the city will continue to work with the Walton Area Chamber of Commerce and Walton County Economic Development Alliance when it comes to attracting new industry.
On the city’s end, Graham is in favor of using tap fee and impact fee waivers, as well as making use of the possible ad valorem abatements for new and expanding business, should such a measure be approved by voter referendum in the upcoming general election. He wants to look into having DeFuniak Springs expand its partnership with Walton County in other ways in order to save the taxpayers money where possible without having a reduction in services. Graham would like to start this process with something like garbage collection and then reevaluate it after a given time to come up with a working cost-benefit analysis.
Graham said all these objectives are possible in DeFuniak Springs because the community has always come together and will work together to get the job done. He said the Council members do the same thing on a weekly basis, working as a team without personal agendas for the benefit of the people that live here. That spirit of oneness in the community is something Graham hopes won’t ever change about his hometown and that is why he’ll keep working hard for the people.
“Living and working here all my life, I’ve had a chance to meet a lot of people,” Graham said. “The thing about DeFuniak is that it doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or young or old or whatever. We’ll bond together. Everyone will do what we have to do. As a member of the City Council, I vote according to my conscience. I look at what will benefit the citizens of DeFuniak Springs. I think everyone on the board is all about the business of helping the citizens of this city.”