While Port St. Joe and county commissioners found plenty of common ground to work together during a joint workshop Monday night, the issue of water quality and water rates charged by the city was a frequent point of contention.
Commissioners met at the county Emergency Management Center in a long-promised workshop to address issues of mutual concern and to examine potential areas to collaborate and save some dollars.
The city has sought the workshop as a follow-up to one held in late 2011 since February. The county worked to set a date in the past month.
All five city commissioners were present along with some staff; County Commissioners Carmen McLemore and Bill Williams, the latter the most vocal and frequent critic of the city, were not present.
The goal of the session was expressed early by the respective administrators.
“The city and county have some of the same issues,” said county administrator Don Butler, ticking off reduced workforces, less tax revenue among others. “It would behoove us to figure out how the county and city can work together and maybe lower some costs.”
Commissioners easily found several areas on which they could collaborate.
County and city grant writers will work together to apply for any grants available to continue the expansion of sewer lines to the Beaches area.
Butler noted that state budget projections are up meaning the odds could be in their favor to seek the kind of grant funding that facilitated sewer to Highland View and White City.
Commissioners also agreed that while there might be some discussion regarding the exact location to relocate the Cape San Blas Lighthouse, the county and city would be better off working together on a solution to save the lighthouse before erosion takes it into the ocean.
The county has formally requested position of the keepers’ quarters and oil house from the General Services Administration as part of the effort to bring the lighthouse and grounds under local control.
The Air Force is looking at moving those three buildings deeper onto the lighthouse grounds, away from the coastline, to buy some time for a decision on relocation and fundraising for that move.
But the location – suggestions have been for a bayfront park in Port St. Joe or possibly relocation to Salinas Park.
“Having that lighthouse in the city would be an economic engine for the city,” said PSJ Commissioner Rex Buzzett. “The county would benefit from the trickle down. But the bottom line, we need to preserve it.”
Commissioners also agreed on the direction of the consolidated Chamber of Commerce/Economic Development Council model and noted that each paid $20,000 to the Chamber budget for the current fiscal year, which began Monday.
Improved lighting on the increasingly more traveled Dr. David Langston Drive also found common ground and several options were considered on how to bring more lights to a road that has but one light its entire length.
Mayor Mel Magidson emphasized that the county bring as much openness as possible to the RESTORE Act process, noting that people want to feel that their voices are heard on how to spend millions in fine money that could be coming the county’s way.
County Commissioner Warren Yeager said the county’s RESTORE committee met once a week, the meetings were noticed and open to the public and invited any and all comments from the public. Yeager also noted that the county is well ahead of neighboring counties, though the committee might be “premature” on some of the intricacies of the process.
“People have an innate distrust of us (elected) folks,” Magidson said. “People need to feel they have a say in this. We can’t do too much to give the public confidence (in this process).”
The workshop’s tense moments came with discussion of a new sports complex that the county and city have long wanted to partner on which segued in to a discussion, led by County Commissioner Tan Smiley, concerning high water bills.
“I believe we need a sports complex,” Yeager said. “I would love to work with the city to get this done. The kids need this new facility and we need to figure out how to get it done in these tough times.”
City Commissioner Bill Kennedy added, “We need to stress the economic impact of a sports complex. I don’t know the numbers but they are huge.”
Smiley said while he did not oppose the new complex, per se, he said the city and county should be looking at improving existing facilities, such as Nathan Peters Park in his district, before considering the cost of a sports complex.
He said Honeyville Park was a perfectly suitable complex if extra ball fields were placed there.
“Every topic we have here tonight is about not having enough money,” Smiley said. “We have to adjust to what is going on.”
That led to an issue Smiley has raised in the past, consolidating the police department and Gulf County Sheriff’s Office, the Building Department, Code Enforcement and other duplication of efforts by county and city.
Magidson said Smiley had raised the law enforcement issue before and indications were that the savings would be minimal at best.
The tension increased as Smiley pressed about water bills which have been raised three times in the past four years.
Magidson noted that he had been told three years prior in a BOCC by Williams that if the city undertook a rate study to justify raising rates, the county would support it. The city paid for the rate study, has followed the rate structure noted in the study.
“We are darned if we do, darned if we don’t,” Magidson said.
Magidson called the new $21 million water plant a “white elephant” that the city likely did not need and is now stuck with. The city is working through problems at the plant and is going further into debt while replacing some 20 miles of aged distribution pipe.
“The water we are producing is fine, the water we are serving is not,” Magidson noted.
Kennedy added that a major problem was the randomness of problems – one household may have clear water while next door the water is the color of molasses.
The only solution to rising water bills – Magidson noted the city again did not raise the millage rate due to a projected rise in utility rates – was more customers and the ability to pay down some of the city’s debt, or a combination of both.
After more than 90 minutes, the workshop ended on a positive note.
“I don’t want to give the impression that we don’t work together because we do,” Yeager said. “We need to continue to do that. We are just trying to figure out how to do that more.”