At last week’s annual delegation hearing. State Sen. Loranne Ausley introduced State Rep. Jason Shoaf’s legislative aide, Preston Wilson, to the audience in the county commission chambers.
“We are taking good notes and we are a team working together,” said Ausley.
While they appeared amiable, the comments were necessary, since Shoaf was absent from what has long been a two-person affair. And while scheduling difficulties were cited, suspicions have risen as high as the county commission that there may also be a partisan rift at work here.
“We gave them all the dates when my schedule was open,” said Shoaf, in a telephone interview Monday. “it’s very odd that all of the meetings would be scheduled by the chair on dates clearly communicated as dates we could not meet.”
Eight weeks earlier, on Wednesday afternoon, Sept. 15, Shoaf had held what he termed a Legislative Community Forum in Apalachicola.
Ausley declined comment, and while fans of the Tallahassee Democratic state senator, and the Port St. Joe Republican state rep, will likely draw their own conclusions, the matter of the Nov. 10 delegation hearing did not go unnoticed at Tuesday morning’s county commission meeting.
“That’s never happened as long as I’ve been on this commission,” said Commissioner Smokey Parrish in comments at the end of the meeting. “This year we had two different ‘delegation meetings’ because one’s a Democrat and one’s a Republican. They couldn’t sit down and talk.”
Parrish said that on Veterans Day he heard an interview with a 93-year-old veteran of World War II, who said his greatest wish was that “I’d like to see this country united.”
Parrish, a self-described conservative and a registered Democrat, said that comment affected him.
“I’m for Democrats and I’m for Republicans,” he said. “I believe what I believe is the right thing for the people of Franklin County.
“I thought it was important to remind everyone here that it ain’t about an R and a D. It’s about doing what’s right for the people,” Parrish said.
The veteran had said “we fought and we died protecting those rights,” Parrish said. “I think the country would be a whole lot better off if we got back to that.”
The delegation hearing featured an appearance by both mayors, and nearly all the constitutional officers.
Ausley opened by thanking those in attendance for the opportunity to serve. “There are a lot of challenges these communities face,” she said, citing water issues and those of health care.
“This has been a challenging couple of years,” Ausley said. “We can stop looking backwards and start looking forwards.”
In his opening remarks, County Chairman Ricky Jones, who also attended Shoaf’s forum, told Ausley “we appreciate you and the leadership you have shown in the short time being at the helm of this Senate district.” He cited her efforts on rural broadband expansion.
He underscored the county’s request for $2.5 million from the legislature in order build a new emergency operations center, slated to be constructed nearby the current location at the Apalachicola Regional Airport. The current EOC is housed in limited space in an aging building given to the county by NOAA several years ago.
Jones also urged Ausley to support a budget request she plans to make to secure $7 million in assistance for building a new hospital. He said the health care trust fund, funded by a one-cent sales tax, had just $1 million in it in 2015.
“We’re currently close to $8 million,” he said. “We’re doing our best to do our part. We need a helping hand to help us have something that wasn’t built in the 1950s for our medical needs.”
Weems Memorial Hospital CEO David Walker also sought funding, noting new facilities have been built in neighboring counties. “It is one of our largest economic engines,” he said. “We have so many tourism visits. I encourage your support.”
Jones asked for help in obtaining about 1,000 acres of the publicly-owned land that comprises upwards of 90 percent of the county, to use for economic development. “We need help to diversity our economy,” he said.
Ausley said that while it wouldn’t resolve this particular request, there could be help forthcoming from Tallahassee through a plan to offer surplus state buildings to fiscally constrained counties. “We need to start getting creative on these issues,” she said.
Property Appraiser Rhonda Skipper appealed for help with shoring up deteriorated roads in the county. “The road is horrible and our children are traveling on it every day,” she said. “Help please, we need that road repaired desperately.”
Superintendent Steve Lanier appealed for the legislature to remove a property tax wealth adjustment that affects Franklin and eight other counties, which this year will cost Franklin's schools nearly $1 million in funding.
“This equates to a 7 percent loss of our budget,” he said, noting Shoaf has agreed to sponsor a House bill to enact the changes.
A bill sponsored in 2016 by State Rep. Halsey Beshears was unable to pass the Senate. “We can’t afford to lose another $981,000 every year,” Lanier said.
Both Apalachicola Mayor Brenda Ash and Carrabelle Mayor Brenda La Paz outlined infrastructure requests their cities were making, with Apalachicola seeking millions for its sewer and stormwater systems, and Carrabelle asking for $1.5 million for roadway and drainage improvements to Baywood Drive.
Speaking on behalf of the St. George Island Civic Club, William Mills asked for Ausley’s backing of state recreation monies that would go to improve and make more accessible the island’s playground, located in a shadeless area on top of deep sand.
“There are so many visitors to St. George Island, so many folks that have grandchildren show up. It’s just not accessible if there are issues of mobility and special needs," he said. "In the absence of funding, the county would have a difficult time.”
In his role as chief operating officer of the county’s land trust, Cliff Butler asked that a mechanism be established to help people in the $40,000 to $75,000 income bracket afford to rent or buy a home.
“For the teacher, the prison guard, the deputy, the county and city employee, they make a little too much to qualify for this type of housing,” he said. “Our housing stock is going down with Airbnb and VRBO. I am seeing them being converted to short-term rentals.
“We have increasing demand and decreasing supply,” Butler said. “One house at a time is not going to solve our problem.”
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