During a special meeting last week the board of Triumph Gulf Coast, Inc. voted to earmark $15 million as a hurricane recovery fund.

The fund would be available to local governments in Gulf, Franklin, Bay and Wakulla counties, those coastal counties most impacted by Hurricane Michael.

Staff will bring back a recommendation for disbursement of those funds, in particular bridge loans, and will take up those recommendations at a later date.

The Triumph board meets again Feb. 25 in Bay County.

Much of the discussion during the 90-minute special meeting pertained to a recommendation via letter from Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, suggesting the Triumph board establish a fund to assist local governments in hurricane recovery.

A particular focus was addressing revenue shortfalls due to loss of property and sales taxes.

Former House Speaker Allan Bense, a member of the Triumph board, said the suggestion had merit but had several concerns and urged caution about using Triumph money for anything other than economic diversification.

Bense noted that there was state funding in the hundreds of millions of dollars to local counties after Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Harvey, sticking with just recent examples.

“I want to be helpful but I don’t want us to take our eye off the ball,” Bense said.

“I am very concerned about utilizing Triumph (funds) for anything except economy recovery unless we can create jobs and assist hurricane recovery at the same time.”

Bense said that he wanted any Triumph money to local governments to be repaid and he was concerned about lending money to cities and counties that will be unable to pay back the loans.

He also believed Triumph should stay away from competing with the private sector; “banks make loans.”

Gulf County officials submitted letters in support of an application for $21 million in Triumph grant funds for the Board of County Commissioners, city of Port St. Joe and Gulf District Schools to mitigate revenue shortfalls.

The letter from the BOCC ends with an expression of disinterest in a loan.

Triumph Gulf Coast, Inc. was legislatively established to disburse $1.5 billion into eight Northwest Florida counties; that money represents fine dollars stemming from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

“We have been hit by two disasters,” said Jason Shoaf, a member of the Triumph board from Gulf County, adding it would be a “crime” if Triumph money was spent on hurricane recovery at the expense of economic development.

Bense and Dr. Pam Dana, another Triumph board member, each, in different words, said Triumph should not be used to mitigate the responsibilities of state and federal governments.

Dana, who played a key economic role under Gov. Jeb Bush, said a bridge loan program was established after a hurricane under Bush, but she added that was state general fund dollars.

“It’s imperative we don’t take the burden off the state for paying for the recovery,” she said.

Bense strongly suggested at several junctures that local governments push the area’s legislative delegation to sponsor a bill to have the state to guarantee all loans made by Triumph.

He said it could be done legislatively, would be a process he would fully support, and encouraged local governments to pursue.

Several board members noted that the region’s legislative delegation had already filed numerous bills linked to hurricane recovery and Gov. Ron DeSantis had expressed his interest in hurricane recovery.

But, some board members acknowledged, there was a degree of pressure from outside the region about using Triumph funds for hurricane recovery, evidenced by the Patronis letter.

Bense and chair Don Gaetz also each mentioned upcoming annual payments due to Triumph, which has received about $300 million to date, but that must be approved by state lawmakers.

And there was general consensus on the board that Triumph needed to do something, within the guidelines established by state lawmakers.

“We’ve got to do everything we can to assist,” Shoaf said. Bridge loans, he added, would be a “good move to get our economy rolling.

“But our prime mission is to diversify our economy.”

A central theme for justifying that assistance was the shortfalls local governments will feel in the coming years as property values are significantly impacted.

Gaetz noted that while hard numbers won’t be available until July, Gulf Property Appraiser Mitch Burke provided a presentation last month of just one county that estimated total ad valorem shortfalls as high as 40 percent.

Whether Triumph should provide bridge loans or grants is to be determined, but for economic development to take place in the region, “we need local governments to be viable.”

Bense also spent a few minutes defending the board’s pace of fund disbursement, saying the board had to be “prudent, thoughtful and deliberate.”

Some $20 million in projects are underway with hundreds of millions dollars worth of projects in the pipeline, he added.

And, he said, any criticism of claw back provisions in project term sheets could be responded to with one word, Redpine.

Several years ago Bay County officials entered into an agreement with Redpine by which the company would receive significant tax breaks and upfront capital and in turn produce hundreds of jobs.

The company never materialized and Bay County lost $600,000 on the deal, Bense said.

“We don’t want that to happen,” Bense said. “We need to make sure if you don’t conform you’re going to feel some pain.”