By DOTTY NIST
Walton County’s legislative delegation recently received comments and requests for assistance on many fronts, ranging from the environment to infrastructure to children and seniors.
On Feb. 27, local officials and citizens alike got their chance to address their representatives in the Florida Legislature, State Representative Brad Drake (R-Eucheeanna) and State Senator George Gainer (R-Panama City), at a public meeting at South Walton High School.
There were more than a dozen speakers at the two-hour meeting. Local officials in attendance were Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson, Walton County Commission Chair Cecilia Jones, county commissioners Tony Anderson, Bill Chapman, and Melanie Nipper, and Freeport Mayor Russ Barley.
In the months prior to this scheduled public meeting, it had been anticipated that many people would be speaking in support or opposition to the proposed incorporation of south Walton County, but the topic was scarcely mentioned. This was because A Better South Walton, the group advocating for a referendum on incorporation, had determined in early February that no bill would be submitted to the legislature in this year’s session for a referendum on incorporation.
Environmental concerns were a key issue for a number of speakers.
Walton County District 1 Commissioner Bill Chapman discussed the county’s ongoing work as a third party, in cooperation with the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), to formally close the old Coyote East Landfill west of Freeport. The work began in mid-February, after the county was able to gain access to the property its far end, as the main access had been sold off.
The landfill had sat abandoned for a number of years. Odor from the landfill had been a big complaint in the community, particularly in recent months.
Services being provided by the county include engineering design, site access control, sedimentation control, waste relocation, stormwater control and landscaping of the old landfill site. Over $900,000 is being provided for the closure work by DEP, the funds coming from an insurance policy of the former landfill owner. Chapman noted that the project is being paid for in this manner and not by county taxpayers.
The old landfill had never been permitted by Walton County.
Chapman told the legislators that he had met with DEP about 1 1/2 years ago and asked why the situation with the landfill had “got to that point.” He said state agency personnel had not been on the site in years to compel the owner to take corrective action.
Chapman said the county was hopeful of having the landfill closure completed within three or four months. He suggested that such projects could be expedited by taking out the “middle man” requirement in “third party” agreements on such projects.
Chapman also urged the legislators to focus on issues such as this rather than, for example, making it a challenge for a farmer to put in a small pond or similar improvement.
Walton County resident Kelly Layman also urged for legislation to give DEP more “teeth” in getting situations such as the old Coyote Landfill corrected and in a much more timely manner.
Layman said she was pleased that an anti-fracking bill had been introduced into the legislature, noting that it would be acid fracking that would take place in Florida if the practice is not disallowed. She told the legislators that Oregon was now having water supply problems due to fracking. “The whole wine industry in Oregon may collapse,” she said.
On the incorporation issue, Layman brought up a potential problem with the large percentage of non-homesteaded properties. This could present a taxation without representation issue in connection with any referendum on incorporation, she warned.
Point Washington resident Frank Day also spoke against fracking, warning that it would cause an increase in earthquakes as has happened in Oklahoma.
Regarding fracking, Gainer said that all he had found out about the activity, “I do not like.” Prior to being elected to the Florida Senate, Gainer had served as a Bay County Commissioner. He noted that just before going to Tallahassee he had opposed fracking on behalf of Bay County through a resolution to the legislature. (Walton County approved an anti-fracking resolution as well.)
“There are some misconceptions on both sides of the issue,” Drake commented. He said that some people do not understand that fracking can potentially take place “right now” and that the party doing it has to be taken to court to be stopped. Drake explained that the companies that do fracking are opposed to having to disclose the materials that they use—but that the legislature is intent on requiring that those must be revealed in connection with any fracking done in Florida.
“It is an important issue,” Drake said, thanking Layman for her interest.
Sheriff Adkinson asked the legislators’ support in his effort to take over the responsibilities of the Department of Children and Families in Walton County, which will require legislative consent. “Can we do it better? Yes!” he said.
Mayor Barley requested support for a number of infrastructure initiatives, including utility upgrades, water and sewer installations along the U.S. 331 Corridor, and a new wastewater treatment plant for the city. Among advantages of the proposals pointed out by Barley were economic development potential and the environmental benefit of being able to reduce or eliminate septic tanks between the city and the bay.
Kay Brady, director of the Walton-Okaloosa Council on Aging, asked for support of funding for senior center funding. She commented that providing services for seniors to allow them to stay in their homes as long as possible, rather than being sent to nursing homes, saves approximately $50,000 per year per senior. Asked about the main challenge to her agency in connection with providing these services, Brady identified the fact that funding is not adequate for in-home services that are needed on a short-term basis.
A representative of a local firefighters’ union requested support for bills in the legislature that would provide benefits to Florida firefighters diagnosed with job-related diseases to which their employment tends to make them more susceptible.
Oyster Lake resident Jacquee Markel expressed opposition to two bills in the legislature, one which would modify Sunshine Law requirements to allow two members of a board or committee to meet and speak on board or committee matters without notice of the meeting, minutes being taken, or other current requirements being met. The other bill would require residents who challenge development decisions in court and lose (or settle) to pay developers’ attorney fees and costs up to $50,000.
Christopher Mayer, an eighth grade teacher at Emerald Coast Middle School, raised the issue of the “climate of testing” which he complained is “overwhelming” the education system. He also expressed concern about a bill that would result in teacher unions being dissolved if union membership falls below a certain percent of the base. “Our teachers need advocacy,” Mayer said.
Drake said the latter House bill has no companion Senate bill currently. Gainer said he had his staff looking at the bill.
Gainer was hopeful that replacement of Common Core would provide for more local control and alleviate the situation regarding testing that Mayer had referenced. Drake commented that “the appropriate balance” must be reached with testing.
Chairwoman Jones put in a word for grant applications submitted for improvements at Wee Care Park, Darlington Park, and the Walton County Fair, also asking for help in getting an Amtrak rail stop in DeFuniak Spring. She also urged for keeping the portion of the BP oil spill funds promised to the Panhandle remain available for use in the area.
Drake quickly termed the latter as a “number one priority.” He added that he had not heard anyone in the halls of the Capitol saying that they were looking to take those funds away.
Gainer said that allowing this money to be taken away from the Panhandle would be “to throw away our future and our children’s future.” “We are together on that,” he emphasized.
Inlet Beach resident Leigh Moore expressed appreciation for the support of the legislators, along with that of the BCC and Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC), for the East Corridor Improvement Project, a community-based partnership effort for improvements to the fast-developing east end of U.S. 98, including beautification and safety features.
Moore noted that the opportunity now exists to “get in front of” what could be a very dangerous situation for the corridor. She said she believes a pedestrian/cyclist underpass that is part of plans for the roadway section will save lives over time.
Drake in turn expressed his appreciation for being invited into the conversation on the corridor project. He pledged to pursue all available funding sources to provide for the project to be accomplished.
The legislators also heard requests for support for the continuation of faith-based education programs for prison inmates and for bills providing for current needs of Northwest Florida State College.
Gainer, who was elected to the Florida Senate in 2016, thanked attendees for giving him the chance to serve as their senator. He nominated Drake to continue to serve as chairman for the legislative delegation, Drake accepted, and this was confirmed.
Drake offered to schedule the next legislative delegation meeting for Walton County in either November or December, or sooner if there was a need.
Drake may be contacted at [email protected] or by phone at (850) 951-0547, Gainer at [email protected] or by phone at (850) 487-5002.
By DOTTY NIST