By DOTTY NIST
“It is going to be a very exciting year in Walton County,” Walton County District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows told members and guests of the South Walton Republican Club (SWRC).
Meadows was featured speaker at the club’s Jan. 7 meeting at Cantina Laredo in Grand Boulevard.
Club President Jim Jaquess noted that the meeting was a historic occasion in that all five Walton County commissioners were present. Aside from Meadows, the other commissioners did not address the club. The presence of a number of other county officials and other dignitaries was recognized as well at the well-attended meeting.
Meadows’ remarks included a look back over the past year, along with “what’s in store for 2016.”
She noted that Walton County’s growth rate had exceeded that of the state in recent years and that the county population is estimated at 62,000. As of Jan. 5, 2016, there were almost 43,000 registered voters in the county, she said.
Meadows was happy to report no hurricanes or oil spills having impacted Walton County in 2015. She highlighted the approval of the St. Joe Company’s large sector plan for Walton and Bay counties during the past year and noted that the ongoing U.S. 331 bridge expansion project would hopefully be finished in 2017, along with the marina and picnic area to be constructed as part of the project.
Meadows spoke of “amazing” growth at the county-owned Mossy Head Industrial Park, recreational improvements at public parks such as Helen McCall Park and Driftwood Park, and “exciting” artificial reef projects.
Additional schools are needed for families moving into the county, and a new school is in the plans, Meadows continued.
Meadows commented on recent growth in the business community over the past year, including new offerings for shopping and dining. A great deal of Internet business is taking place in Walton County, with Santa Rosa Beach having been named the number one e-commerce city in Florida, she continued.
She told attendees that on Jan. 12 county commissioners would be selecting projects for funding through the RESTORE Act Pot 1 from a list of over 40 projects. This year’s available funding through Pot 1 was some $5 million, and $5 to $6 million should be available next year, Meadows revealed.
She credited county staff for their hard work, particularly during several flood events during the year, even on weekends and holidays. The county has identified over 50 locations for construction of stormwater management features, she noted.
Unfortunately, recent flood events that have taken considerable staff time have resulted in the county’s “Dirt to Pave” road improvement program falling about two years behind, Meadows revealed. There is also a need to improve ongoing road maintenance, she noted.
With increasing demand for government services, the county could spend an additional $30 million “and not get everything done,” Meadows lamented.
Among other issues facing the county she listed beach ownership and access issues and limited public beaches, the challenge of balancing development and growth with quality of life, and audit issues.
Among solutions put in place by the county commented on by Meadows were the two Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts set up to provide funding to address infrastructure deficiencies in south Walton County and along U.S. 331, respectively.
“You’re going to see a lot of construction going on within the next few years, Meadows predicted.
She also highlighted the drainage crew set up by the county and new requirements in the Walton County Land Development Code (LDC) to improve the stormwater drainage situation.
Walton County obtained about $80 million in grant funds from the state in 2015, Meadows said, including funding for a wastewater treatment plant at Mossy Head Industrial Park.
Looking ahead, Meadows said, the county is to benefit not only from the RESTORE Act Pot 1 funds but from the trust account administered by Triumph Gulf Coast. This is funding stemming from Florida’s $2 billion settlement with BP in connection with the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Triumph Gulf Coast is a five-member corporation that will make decision on $1.5 billion of those funds to be used in the eight Panhandle counties. The panel has been tasked with decisions on funding for projects that will diversify and enhance economic opportunities in the region.
“It’s going to change the face of Northwest Florida,” Meadows said of Triumph Gulf Coast.
Meadows reminded attendees that late January would be the deadline for return of signed construction easements by beachfront property owners in connection with the Walton County Hurricane & Storm Damage Reduction Project. Signed easements are to be required in order for project contractors to go onto property owners’ lots to construct the project, which may not proceed if insufficient easements are obtained. Meadows reported that “no” responses were far outnumbering signed easements.
She noted that the county sales tax had been reduced from 7 1/2 percent to 7 percent due to the loan in connection with the U.S. 331 bridge expansion project being paid off.
Meadows also mentioned the upcoming Public Space Design Charrette workshops on the topic of public space design for signage, fencing, street furniture, landscaping, pedestrian/bicycling circulation, and lighting in south Walton County. A survey to gather public input on these elements is available on the Walton County web site, www.co.walton.fl.us, and workshops on the topic are tentatively scheduled for Feb. 16 and 17.
Meadows predicted that, with everything she had mentioned, along with the upcoming elections, “It is going to be a very exciting year in Walton County.”
“It’s a great place to be right now,” she concluded.
Jaquess noted that the club was considering having a county commissioners’ forum in May. Three Walton County Board of Commissioners (BCC) seats, those for Districts 1, 3, and 5, are up for election in 2016.
SWRC membership was reported as 50 members.
A straw poll for Republican Presidential candidates resulted in one vote each for Ben Carson and Chris Christie, four votes for Ted Cruz, eight votes for Marco Rubio, and 18 votes for Donald Trump.
The meeting included the election of new club officers for 2016. Elected were: Jim Jaquess, president; Art Miller, first vice president; Donna Johns, second vice president; Bob Hudson, treasurer; and Carol Miller, secretary.
The meeting featured an invitation by Tim Norris on behalf of the Walton County Republican Executive Committee for members to attend the March 17 Lincoln Day Dinner at the Sandestin Hilton with featured speaker Lt. Colonel Allen West.