That exhale heard last week came from Gulf County officials after Gov. Rick Scott did his work on the state budget and signed landmark Triumph Legislation.



That exhale heard last week came from Gulf County officials after Gov. Rick Scott did his work on the state budget and signed landmark Triumph Legislation.

By far, the biggest win was the Triumph legislation, which included several provisions long sought by Gulf County, but nearly as noteworthy were several appropriations the governor did not strike with his veto pen.

Those included $5 million to create a dry dock facility, tossing in another $1 million for dredging, in the turning basin of the federally-authorized shipping channel.

In addition, the state’s $82 billion-plus budget includes $6 million to facilitiate rail improvements along the Genesee Wyoming rail line linking the Port of Port St. Joe to points, and markets, north.

Toss in the vetoing of the Florida Education Finance Program component of the budget, which funds public schools and was due to put a hurt on the bottom line for Gulf District Schools, and it would be hard to imagine a more rosy scenario for local officials.

“Everything just fell right for us,” said Warren Yeager, executive director of the Gulf County Economic Development Coalition. “We hope we did all the right things.”

The Triumph legislation created the framework for the mission of Triumph Gulf Coast, charged with disbursing the largest chunk of fine dollars coming to the state out of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon, as well as sending the first $300 million, out of a total of $1.5 billion, to the Triumph trust fund.

The Triumph board is charged with disbursing that money for economic development projects in the eight-county region bounded by Escambia and Wakulla.

“Governor Scott’s signature on the Triumph Gulf Coast legislation ushers in a new era for Northwest Florida, one in which the region can be transformed by new jobs and new opportunities for everyone,” said Kim Wilmes, President and CEO of Florida’s Great Northwest. “From this point forward, the area can truly begin putting the BP oil spill in the past and move forward to a brighter future.

“Throughout this process, the communities of Northwest Florida have been united in their belief that the BP money should be dedicated for use here, for the betterment of our entire region ... As the region’s economic development organization, Florida’s Great Northwest looks forward to working with the Triumph Gulf Coast board and all the communities of our region to begin building that bright new economic future.”

The bill includes several provisions Gulf County officials had pushed from the outset.

One, the major push, was that each county receive a guaranteed percentage.

Under the legislation, each county will receive 5 percent of the intial payment, roughly $15 million this year, with each county receiving another 4 percent for each out year through year 15; at minimum $63 million per county.

And, that Yeager noted, consumes only 40 percent of the overall Triumph pot of funds; with leveraging, he added, that $63 million per county could be at least doubled.

Secondly, the legislation includes the adding of two more members to the current five-member Triumph board.

Those additional two members will come from among the four least-populated counties, Gulf, Franklin, Wakulla and Walton.

Third, local Boards of County Commissioners are charged with submitting projects to the Triumph board, providing an element of local control over the process.

County officials have long argued that given the jump-start the county took in addressing potential needs for funding from oil spill fine money, the county was in the position to prioritize projects.

“We were fortunate, there again, to get everything we wanted in that legislation,” Yeager said.

“It really is an unbelievable opportunity for the county.”

And, given the months, years, really, that went by with even the most optimistic of county officials wondering when promised oil spill fine money might actually arrive, Triumph is the latest evidence the stream is flowing.

Yeager noted the work at Frank Pate Park on refurbishing the boat ramp and work at Veterans Memorial Park in Beacon Hill which is near completion, both of which are National Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) early phase projects.

Another phase of dollars is funding work at Money Bayou and the boat ramp at Highland View is in line for an overhaul.

The dry dock facility for Eastern Shipbuilding is also seen as a key driver of economic development and the lack of veto from Scott is an indication something has changed from five years ago when he vetoed a $5 million appropriation for improvements to the paper mill site bulkhead.

Eastern, which has for several years leased a portion of that bulkhead from the St. Joe Company, hopes to establish a facility to work on vessels, those within a Coast Guard contract the company won as well as others.

Yeager noted that Mobile, AL has the closest such facility.

Other grant funding

While the big-ticket items in the budget broke the county’s way, not so with small grant opportunities.

State lawmakers funded fewer than 20 historic perservation projects across the state and that left the Port Theatre and Centennial Building in Port St. Joe out of the money.

In addition, there was no funding of state parks and recreation projects, so applications for several parks projects from the county and both cities went unfunded.

The city of Port St. Joe also sought funding for expanding sewer service to the Cape, but that appropriation was also unfunded.