State appropriation adds to budget
While not the amount hoped for when the legislative session ended, every little bit helps.
The state budget passed earlier this month by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Rick Scott last Friday included a $1 million appropriation out of natural resources dollars for the beach restoration project on St. Joseph Peninsula.
That increases the county’s budget for the project from $10.6 million as another round of bidding on the project began this week.
A mandatory pre-bid meeting was scheduled for Wednesday as the county move’s ahead with a plan to “reverse” bid the project.
In effect, instead of bidding the project’s orginal scope, as with last year when bids came in 40 percent over budget and were rejected by the Board of County Commissioners, the county is putting its available dollars on the table.
The bid, in short strokes, is requesting how much sand, over how much beach, will those dollars purchase.
The county had hoped that several years of lobbying might free up as much as $3 million from the Florida Department of Transportation, despite the FDOT’s inclination not to consider investing in anything on the peninsula until and when a bridge is needed.
The $1 million was marshaled through the legislative session by Rep. Halsey Beshears (R-Monticello) from his position on a committee on natural resources, said Dr. Pat Hardman, president of the Coastal Community Association of Gulf County.
She added that Sen. Bill Montford (D-Tallahassee) assisted in the Senate chamber.
“Every bit helps,” Hardman said. (Beshears) didn’t give up.”
Every little bit would surely assist the city of Port St. Joe and the Port Theatre Arts and Cultural Center, both of which just out of the funding.
The projects were each ranked in the top 10 in the special category projects under the state’s historic preservation program.
In many, many prior years, that should have been ranking sufficient to be funded; the PTACC was seeking $500,000 and the city of Port St. Joe was seeking $286,000 for the Centennial Building.
Both projects aim to restore historic buildings badly in need of the restoration.
However, lawmakers and the governor only budgeted just over $2 million in funding for special category grants.
That takes the funding through the top six projects, two in Miami-Dade County, two in Palm Beach County, one in Orange County and one in Leon County.
The problem for the two local projects: they were ranked No. 7 (Port Theatre) and No. 9 (Centennial Building).
“Not the news we were hoping for,” said city clerk Charlotte Pierce.
There is still the possibility of one or more of the projects ranked higher dropping out, therefore the funding would move down the ranks.
The city and PTACC were each encouraged to re-apply for funding when the new submission period begins April 1.
A statewide issue of contention could play a significant role locally in the coming year as the Gulf District Schools budget for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Lawmakers and the governor touted a $101 increase in public school spending, but much of that is focused on school safety in the wake of the Parkland Douglas massacre.
Lawmakers limited spending of most of the increase to certain categories, including additional mental health professionals, school resource officers and teacher performance bonuses.
The Florida Association of District School Superintendents protested the budget and urged the governor, to no avail, to call lawmakers into special session to address education funding.
The bottom line for school superintendents is that the education budget provides a boost of just 47 cents per pupil to the base student allocation, which boiled to basics is the funding for operational budgets.
The FADSS noted that given the small increase, districts will struggle with the rising costs of utilities, retirement benefits and employee raises.
In Gulf County, retirement benefit payouts have already hit record highs the past two years and teacher raises, which were absent for nearly a decade, have been a contentious issue.
“Forty-seven cents to fund public education is not only insufficient, it is an affront to our students, teachers, administrators and Florida communities as a whole,” said FADSS President and Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie in a press release.
“The budget approved during the 2018 Legislative Session will force Florida school districts to cut their operational budgets – cuts that will impact our schools, our communities and the children we serve.”
Superintendent of Gulf County Schools Jim Norton has since the 2017 legislative session expressed concern about funding impacts out of the just-concluded session.
In the FADSS release, gratitude was expressed for funding increases for school safety and mental health services for students, but said funding appropriated for the day-to-day operating costs for schools is inadequate.
The governor had initially proposed an increase of $152 per student to the base student allocation.
The end result, the FADSS said, was that enhancements to student safety will come at the cost of basic educational programs.
“It’s going to create challenges across the state of Florida,” said Jeff Eakins, Superintendent of Hillsborough County Schools.
“I don’t think people understand the cuts we took when the economy turned down. And my biggest question is, Why aren’t we investing in education when our economy is stronger?”