The case has been made to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a decision from the agency was expected “soon” on whether Gulf County will be reimbursed some $15 million for damages to a beach renourishment project during Hurricane Gustav four years ago.
The reimbursement, said Washington lobbyist Amanda Woods, was initially to be provided by FEMA before a protest from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who expressed concerns about impacts to sensitive animal habitat.
Woods told the Board of County Commissioners last week that she and her firm, along with local officials and members of the county’s congressional delegation, have made a strong case that the reimbursement should be made and that FEMA has the power to decide that reimbursement despite objections for U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
The presumption from the beginning, Woods said, was the reimbursement to restore lost sand was within the guidelines of the Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA) which seeks to govern development of sensitive coastal lands across the country.
That presumption, Woods added, was based on FEMA’s original authorization for the $20 million beach renourishment undertaken by the county in the past decade.
“FEMA can pay the reimbursement if it is consistent with CBRA and we think it is given two key points – sensitive species would not be impacted and the renourishment would not be bringing new development.
“We expect a response soon but we are confident we made the case.”
The county has been seeking reimbursement for sand loss for four years and has twice gone back to federal agencies with new information demonstrating, county officials say, that the reimbursement should be made.
Woods noted that much of the information provided FEMA and other federal agencies also points to the county’s argument that the Cape San Blas/St. Joseph Peninsula area should never have been placed in a CBRA zone, based on infrastructure and development already in place in the early 1980’s when CBRA was passed by Congress and signed into law by former President Ronald Reagan.
“It should never have been included,” Woods said. “That area did not meet the criteria for inclusion in a CBRA zone.”
She said Congressman Steve Southerland has filed a bill in Congress to have the CBRA designation in Gulf County overturned and that bill should be heard in committee after the first of the year.
A contentious discussion broke out over the BOCC decision of the previous meeting to move ahead with hiring an individual, the only name offered was that of former commissioner Bill Williams, to represent the county in bringing BP fine money to the county.
Bo Williams spoke passionately that Bill Williams should not be hired due to the county’s strong representation at the state – Sen. Bill Montford, Senate President Don Gaetz, Rep. Halsey Beshears – and federal – Congressman Steve Southerland – levels.
Bo Williams also noted that Bill Williams owed the Internal Revenue Service nearly $2 million, had unpaid county property taxes and despite having traveled extensively on taxpayer dime for RESTORE Act meetings and congressional testimony, the county had realized little.
“See any bacon on the plate?” Bo Williams asked commissioners. “I don’t think you need a paid representative in Tallahassee to advocate for the county on this.”
Newly-elected Joanna Bryan, who at the start of the meeting was sworn in as the first elected female commissioner, also said calls and communications from her constituents, once served by Bill Williams, indicated disinclination toward hiring Williams.
“I think it would be a mistake for obvious reasons,” Bryan said. “It is best we break ties with Mr. Williams and move forward.”
And despite protests from Commissioner Tan Smiley that Bill Williams’ personal financial issues were not county business, Bryan said his handling of his own money is germane to serving the public.
“The way a person does handle his personal finances does reflect on how he might handle county business,” Bryan said.
Resident Pat Hardman said he had hoped the “personal vendetta” she described against Bill Williams would end and that Bill Williams has a lot of expertise in the RESTORE Act.
Commissioner Ward McDaniel said the BOCC did not hire Bill Williams but were looking at potential avenues should they need help in the future with RESTORE issues.
Bryan moved that the county attorney be halted in his work on a scope of services to hire a consultant, Bill Williams or not, but Smiley and Commissioner Carmen McLemore dissented.
With Commissioner Warren Yeager having left the meeting midway through, the motion died due to a 2-2 tie, with McDaniel agreeing with Bryan.
Texting and driving county vehicles
The BOCC approved an ordinance that would ban county employees from texting and reading texts or other information from their phones while driving a county vehicle.
Editor’s note: Last week it was stated in this paper that the BOCC is barred from hiring Bill Williams as a lobbyist for the county for two years after he left office. Attorney Tom Gibson of Rish, Gibson and Scholz in an email said his interpretation was that Bill Williams could not represent a third party for compensation before the BOCC but that the BOCC could “absolutely” hire Williams to represent the BOCC.