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BOCC: Mixed local economy news

Tim Croft

To assert that Tuesday’s regular monthly meeting of the Board of County Commissioners contained mixed local economic news would be to assert the Titanic was a ship.

Gulf Correctional Institute’s warden provided news clearly not what commissioners or staff wanted to hear and which Warden Scott Payne didn’t seem pleased to deliver.

On the other, several tantalizing tidbits of positive economic news came from County Administrator Michael Hammond and Jim McKnight, executive director of the county’s Economic Development Coalition.

Just to leave it aside, let’s start with the less than glowing: GCI, Annex and Forestry Camp are not going to house as many prisoners as the county would like when census time comes around this spring.

Payne said currently there were 783 inmates at GCI with another 205 at the Forestry Camp.

He said that one of the two facilities would likely be taking more inmates in the coming weeks, but “as we get some in, some go out,” Payne said.

The Department of Corrections is working to add more beds at the Forestry Camp, but added that some $80,000-$100,000 worth of plumbing work remained at GCI’s secure housing units.

He added to county staff’s misery by alerting commissioners that at this time the Annex will not be reopening.

“Not opening that annex is 10 percent of our population right there,” Hammond said.

When the census comes around, Payne said, the prison should be holding about 1,300-plus inmates, roughly a third of pre-Hurricane Michael counts.

That will significantly impact county population numbers for the next decade.

A recent lockdown at the Forestry Camp, which impacted work crews, was due to excessive contraband found in Wewahitchka, around the Dead Lakes area, Payne said.

DOC regulations require that all work crews be called back to the prison in the event of lockdown, which lasted three days.

The major issue he is facing, Payne said, is keeping employees who are leaving for other agencies or public and private sector jobs as well as retiring.

Payne said he was currently down 40 employees.

Commissioner Ward McDaniel said commissioners were headed to Tallahassee after Tuesday’s meeting to meet with the county’s legislative delegation and a priority is pay increases for correctional officers.

The DOC has also made pay a priority and Payne noted that a new pay scale, if approved, will help the loss in the workforce.

“Most prisons are in small counties and they are also one of the top employers in that county,” Hammond noted.

On another note

Hammond also provided the first glimpse of positive economic news as the St. Joe Company has agreed to split the cost of a feasibility study for an airport in Gulf County.

The county has already spent $30,000, of which St. Joe has agreed to reimburse half, Hammond said.

The two parties were not yet in a position to enter into a formal public-private partnership as allowed under state law, Hammond said.

Hammond estimated the county’s cost for the feasibility study at “less than $75,000.”

McKnight reported that the county’s unemployment rate, now 3.3 percent, has continued its drop since a high of 7 percent after Hurricane Michael.

The county, which has nine more people employed than last year at this time, is down 278 in the workforce, which McKnight suspected was tied to the prisons.

Additionally, Triumph Gulf Coast, Inc. was expected to finalize Tuesday a grant contract with Gulf Coast State College which would expand the Gulf/Franklin campus and double the nursing the program.

McKnight said that federal and state grants are being pursued to provide the road and sewer, as well as grant matching money, for the $3.2 million hangar Skyborne Technology plans to build at the Costin Airport.

Further, a kind of unmanned aerial “boot camp” would be offered at both GCSC campuses that would lead to students being able to earn their pilot’s license if the concept is approved and grant-funded by Triumph Gulf Coast.

“It is a kind of wraparound program to what is being taught in the (county) high schools right now,” McKnight said. “Students can earn their three certificates in high school and go into boot camp for their pilot’s license.”