The board of Triumph Gulf Coast will meet Friday in Bay County to discuss establishing a recovery fund for several counties hard hit by Hurricane Michael.
Gulf County officials aren’t necessarily buying in just yet.
Triumph Gulf Coast board member Allan Bense has proposed establishing a fund to provide property tax relief for local governments in Gulf, Bay, Franklin and Wakulla counties.
The idea is one of two agenda items for the special meeting of the Triumph board.
And the concept is at the root of a multi-government application from Gulf County seeking grant funding to abate expected reductions in revenue from property and sales taxes over the next three years.
The application for nearly $21 million is a collaboration of the Board of County Commissioners, the city of Port St. Joe and Gulf District Schools.
However, county officials are cautious regarding the Triumph approach as there is a distance between “grant” funding and a “loan” or other outlay that would require repayment by the county.
And the discussion arrives at a time when local officials are expressing frustration with the Triumph Gulf Coast process and decisions as lawmakers in other parts of the state wonder whether Triumph dollars should be diverted to Hurricane Michael recovery.
In short, the discussion at the Robert Moore Annex last week was part of what is surely to be a broader discussion coming up in the halls of Tallahassee once the legislative session is underway.
“The idea (of how Triumph was set up) was to take politics out of it, but it has become political,” said County Administrator Michael Hammond, singling out Don Gaetz, Senate President during the shepherding of Triumph legislation and now chairman of the Triumph board.
“They have only stroked one check I believe, to Bay County. It’s not their money, but money to be spent for the benefit of economic development in Northwest Florida,” Hammond continued.
Hammond noted that legislation approved last year earmarked at least $15 million in first-year funding for Gulf County.
As of yet, Hammond said, the county has not seen a dime.
“It was a wonderful idea, but they took our money,” Hammond said.
And, he added, lawmakers from South and Central Florida seem to be putting the Triumph dollars into focus when it comes paying the expenses of recovery from Hurricane Michael.
Despite, one commissioner noted, there never being no set-aside funding source for past hurricanes such as Irma.
Hammond continued by citing an application to construct a floating dry dock in the shipping channel which secured a pledge of $13 million in Triumph dollars.
Hammond said the terms of any contract were likely ones the county could not live with.
“With the claw back provisions they required, we would never be able to sign it,” Hammond said.
The contract would require a creation of a certain number of jobs within a designated period of time or the county could end up on the hook for paying the entire amount back to Triumph.
Since Hurricane Michael, the county has drawn back the dry dock application in favor of assistance with a projected loss of tax revenue.
He noted the school district encountered similar issues pertaining to grant funding for a drone program, though the provisions were massaged enough for the district to agree to the grant fund.
Meanwhile, there was considerable dissenting discussion during a Triumph meeting last month concerning a Florida State University project awarded $7 million in funding without an apparent guarantee of job creation.
Triumph Gulf Coast was established with the task of distributing $1.5 billion in BP fine dollars in eight Northwest Florida counties over the next 15 years.
Legislation establishing its operating parameters, earmarked 5 percent, or roughly $15 million, to Gulf County in the first year with a pledge of 4 percent of the annual payments from BP per year thereafter.
A central goal, as stated in its bylaws, is to spur economic development in an underserved area of the state.
Jason Shoaf, the Gulf County representative on the board, said during last week’s meeting that should remain the focus for Triumph dollars, not hurricane recovery.
“We should be using those funds to diversify our economy,” Shoaf said.