When Flagler County commissioners met for their latest workshop and update on the recovery from Hurricane Matthew, they were worried about the dollar amounts the Legislature was appropriating for the effort—and mostly what amounts the Legislature was not appropriating.
“I’m hearing we might not even come close to the $10 million we were hoping for,” Commission Chairman Nate McLaughlin said.
“If that’s the reality, what I’d recommend,” County Administrator Craig Coffey told commissioners, “is we make an effort to then go and approach the governor back for some more emergency funding out of his pot.”
Gov. Rick Scott doesn’t actually have a pot of his own, but he can, to a degree, order the release or redirection of dollars within certain agencies, as he did in January, when his intervention ensured that Flagler would receive $5.4 million out of $15.8 million he’d ordered set aside for emergency beach repairs.
But the governor’s intervention may not be necessary.
Though it looked iffy for a while, by the time the Legislature adjourned Monday evening, Rep. Paul Renner, whose district includes all of Flagler County, had secured $13.3 million for emergency repairs in his district. The catch, as far as Flagler is concerned: the money will be shared between Flagler and St. Johns counties, and it’s still not clear how the Department of Environmental Protection will split the amount. The DEP is in charge of administering the money and of some of the beach-restoration work taking place in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, which sheared off enormous chunks of beach sand and dunes in Flagler County.
“DEP will administer that based upon the county’s needs,” Renner said in an interview this afternoon. “So we believe that that in combination, with the possibility of some funds from the main beaches budget, will be adequate to cover the entirety of the local match in Flagler County.”
Still, the amount Renner secured was a big victory for Flagler, and appears to be an indication of Renner’s own leverage in Tallahassee, junior though his status was as a newcomer to the Legislature. Renner is also among House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s lieutenants. And while that position put his initiatives at odds with some favored by the Flagler power structure (Renner drew bitter criticism from local politicians and the governor over his stance to def-fund Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida, the economic development and tourism organizations with credibility problems) his ability to secure the $13.3 million sum should raise his stock again locally. In comparison with that sum alone, last year Renner and Sen. Travis Hutson secured a total of just $2.5 million for Flagler initiatives.
In terms of dunes, normally the Legislature allocated $30 million a year for what Coffey termed “normal dunes stuff,” even though that normal fund was perennially underfunded: one study he referred to put the state’s dunes-maintenance needs at closer to $80 million a year, absent hurricane damage. With two hurricanes striking the state this year—Hermine preceded Matthew—the Legislature allocated $50 million to that “normal” pot, or just $20 million more than normal. (At one point during the budget negotiations the amount was reduced to $20 million before being bumped back up.)
The $13.3 million Flagler and St. Johns received is “in its own dedicated fund for hurricane relief,” Renner stressed, “which is separate and distinct from the overall beaches budget in the amount of approximately $50 million.” The budget, in other words, specifies the $13.3 million appropriation to Flagler and St. Johns. That leaves open the possibility for additional dollars to be allocated through DEP’s “normal,” non-emergency pot.
Flagler County needs about $10 million in order to be able to match that money with local dollars, from loans to be repaid with revenue from the county’s tourism sales surtax, which was just raised from 4 percent to 5 percent for the purpose. Overall, the county administration is projecting dune-restoration project costs for the county’s entire coastline of $22 million, though state agencies may shoulder the brunt of that. The Legislature’s allocation Monday, channeled through DEP, should lower the county’s burden considerably. But to what extent is still unclear, both because the amount that will go to St. Johns has not yet been determined, and because the county administration is itself still crunching numbers.
Just last week it revealed to commissioners that all the bids returned for one of the beach restoration projects proved too high. That’s a factor that could end up diminishing the benefits of state money—if the county is unable to bring the cost of the work within budget. “I advise you that the bids came in more than budgeted, and we are in the process of rejecting all bids, if we haven’t done so already,” Coffey said. “We plan to re-advertise. We’re working three different strategies to try to bring the project back within budget.”
One strategy is to develop a local sand source, but it’ll depend on the quality of the sand. Otherwise, the county may be forced to go off-shore and dig for the sand in the ocean. Another issue, aside from sand, is permitting concerning sea turtles and the dune restoration itself, which have to do with access points and easement documents. A third is to analyze whether the county itself didn’t set too high a standard for the work required. The flip side of that is the risk of lowering expectations and essentially cutting corners to get the work done within budget.
But those are the local details—and challenges—posed by the scope of work that state dollars will help execute. Considering that those state dollars were at one point zeroed out of the budget process over the weekend, Flagler County may be considering itself very lucky.
“We did intervene,” Renner said, referring to the point at which the budget negotiations had eliminated the emergency beach funding request. “We fought pretty hard. I think we did a lot of laps around the Capitol and talked to a lot of people over a short amount of time there in the crunch during the budget negotiations to get us to that point. Now obviously we’re grateful to our leadership in the House as well as those in the Senate that concurred on a pretty sizeable number when you compare it to other projects that members are requesting, it’s significantly higher than what most members normally get, so we’re very happy with the outcome.”
Renner said he had been asked by Flagler to secure $8.5 million for the county.
“So I think we will get there, and the combination of $13.3 [million] split between the two counties, in addition to other funds that are going to be available from different pots to address what we need in the entirety of our coastline in Flagler County,” Renner said. The split will be administered “one would presume beginning with the most critical needs down to the least critical needs in terms of beach restoration, so that’ll be administered in I believe an equitable way from DEP across both counties, but it is prioritized in the budget for those two counties, Flagler and St. Johns.”