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City summer programs in jeopardy

Tim Croft
tcroft@starfl.com

As much as they expressed the desire or hope, Port St. Joe commissioners also saw the light, as in reality, during Tuesday’s regular meeting.

And this week, the reality on the ground, as far as commissioners were concerned, is that now is not the time to open up city parks and facilities.

Commissioners were particularly opposed to opening city indoor facilities such as the STAC House or Washington Gym for example.

“You can’t govern what goes on in a gym,” said Mayor Rex Buzzett, referring to social distancing guidelines.

“Right now it is more responsible and prudent of us not to open it all up.”

Commissioners agreed they still had time, that in two weeks reality may have altered, but Buzzett stated dim hope for summer youth programs at the Washington Gym or STAC House.

“It is unfortunate,” Buzzett said.

The main focus was on liability; where would liability land if an event in a city facility or park results in positive cases of coronavirus.

There was unanimous support for opening up as soon as possible, but also acknowledgement that the pandemic continues to rage.

“I say open all the parks back up as long as the city is not sponsoring the event or it has the city’s name on it,” said Commissioner David Ashbrook, but added that social distancing guidelines could last into next year.

Ashbrook wondered about the city’s liability if just one COVID-19 case emerged.

Buzzett and Commissioner Eric Langston each expressed the view that as beaches and boat ramps open, people are becoming too laissez faire about COVID-19.

The reality that there has been but one confirmed positive COVID-19 case in the county, that individual has recovered, have also served a local easement of adherence to state and federal guidelines.

“We still have to have this mindset that this thing is not defeated,” Langston said. “We can’t be complacent.

“We should keep things closed and see how it goes.”

Buzzett said he wished to open parks and city facilities as soon as he felt he had “the community’s commitment” to maintain state and federal guidelines, particularly about social distancing.

Buzzett said, and commissioners agreed, regular bi-monthly meetings and any special meetings should remain accessible via videoconferencing with just 10 people in the meeting room.

Buzzett also noted that under current emergency declarations, commissioners had the power to completely shutter restaurants.

“If we can’t get a commitment from the public …we have to keep our noses to the grindstone and keep things closed for right now,” Buzzett said.

Grant projects

The city is exploring its options for a grant to assist in cleaning out Chicken House Branch under an arrangement similar to one the county secured to assist in cleaning of key stormwater areas.

The city has significant cleaning of stormwater areas necessary from First to 20th Streets, but the grant carries a 25 percent match, or nearly $300,000.

“The concern is getting these areas cleaned in case we have another flood event,” said city financial officer Mike Lacour.

A question is whether the county might be able to assist, having just secured a grant package of more than $5 million for the purpose of clearing stormwater areas clogged by Hurricane Michael.

Under almost every bridge between First and 20th in Port St. Joe, downed timber clogs the stormwater flow heading to St. Joseph Bay.

An area between First and Fourth is also clogged with dead trees.

The city will reach out to the county as well as pursue grant funding, though the city lacks the match dollars.

Commissioners also approved a letter of support to a University of Florida program seeking grant funding to analyze stormwater and connectivity issues and potential solutions.

Pavilion

One of the great landmarks in Gulf County, the pavilion over the water at Frank Pate Park, may become a permanent casualty of Hurricane Michael.

Quotes to replace the pavilion at its current location were $450,000 at the floor and the city has been provided just over half that through insurance and FEMA reimbursement.

Commissioners formally rejected that first round of bids and at Lacour’s request will bid the project again, this time separating the demolition from construction of a replacement.

Hoffman expressed skepticism the city would ever be able to afford a full rebuild, but commissioners put off for now a final decision on direction until after bids are received.

“I’m committed to rebuilding it back as much as we can afford,” Hoffman said.