When Eugene Raffield speaks I have found it best to listen.
Sure, a good chew on words has never been an aversion for Eugene, but behind that big-man Southern drawl is a mind at work, one of ideas and common sense in a package that typically cuts to the chase.
And last week during a meeting of the Port Authority of Port St. Joe, of which Eugene is a board member, he said something about the RESTORE Act process that cut to the marrow.
Paraphrasing here, Eugene’s point was that many segments of the community — in short the community as a whole — needed to be in the conversation concerning how the county handles and spends what commissioners have described as a potential windfall in the tens of millions of dollars.
There are plenty of buts here, as have been pointed out in meetings of the Board of County Commissioners, Port Authority, Port St. Joe City Commission and School Board.
The amount of money is an unknown. There is a formula in place for dividing it among states and, in Florida, among counties, but at this point they could be dividing Pi instead of a dollar pie and it would make no difference.
If there is payout of fines by BP, would it come after a long, drawn-out trial or in a settlement with the federal government? This could be a court case that lasts past the lifetime of many of us.
Any adjudication or settlement would also come with a question mark similar to those queries from bill collectors – when will the check arrive?
So there are plenty of unknowns to the RESTORE Act, enough that we have to hope that history won’t repeat itself in Gulf County as it goes to financial responsibility and accountability.
Right now, a small committee is sifting through a mound of paperwork and trying to work with their respective constituencies – there is representation from Port St. Joe, Wewahitchka, the Board of County Commissioners, Chamber of Commerce, Tourist Development Council, and others – to come up with potential projects for funding.
The emphasis is in two areas: economic development and environmental protection and restoration. But the criteria for ranking projects is also unknown.
Last week’s two Port Authority meetings, at which economic development experts versed in the entire RESTORE process spoke, highlighted that few even understand some basic rules. Yet by January the eight most impacted Northwest Florida counties are supposed to have written and documented plans and projects.
That is a short window of time, leading to further potential that accountability for the funds won’t be properly assigned, and potential for more controversy like the Tourist Development Council suffered over the past 18 months.
With the TDC fiasco, there was money in the seven figures rolling into an agency that had no plans in place to spend it. The TDC pretty much made up a plan on the fly because there was a short deadline for spending more money, by a long shot, than the TDC had ever pocketed in any one-year window.
As the audit of the TDC commissioned by the BOCC demonstrated, policies, procedures and rules went by the wayside – from the BOCC to the county administrator to the Clerk of Courts to the TDC board to the TDC director – while the money that flowed was directed to a constricted number of people.
And now we’re talking about 10 times that amount of money.
Raffield wondered rightly last week where was the representation for the fishing industry – as hard hit as any local industry by the oil spill – on the county subcommittee? Taking it further why isn’t the community more involved?
Certainly a series of town hall meetings could be conducted, at both ends of the county, to discuss the potential elected officials speak of when they talk of remaking the region. Certainly the citizens, the residents most impacted by the BP oil spill, could provide insight into worthy projects to consider.
How about the long-term financial health of the county? Given the hard times many are experiencing these days is there not a way to bank some of that windfall for an even rainier day?
This, given the potential, could be a watershed moment for the county. This has the potential to impact the county in ways that those proposing county-wide voting can only dream about.
To succeed in truly reshaping the future of Gulf County this must be a county process that ends with decisions good for the entire county. In a county of just 15,000 or so residents that doesn’t seem a leap.
Leaving the entire process up to the BOCC, in the aftermath of the TDC debacle, seems like forgetting history.