County slams door on island incorporation

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Franklin County commissioners on Tuesday morning put an emphatic kibosh, at least for the time being, to a nearly two-year long effort by St. George Island activists to incorporate as a town.

By a unanimous vote, commissioners rejected a request from a member of the working group that advocates for incorporation to place a non-binding referendum on the August 23, 2022 primary ballot, for a vote open to all residents of the island.

Shannon Bothwell, one of the members of the St. George Island Citizen Working Group, said that while such a “straw poll” vote is not mandated by the statutory requirement for incorporation, it would come at no cost to voters.

“It would be simply an opportunity for people of St. George Island to express their opinion in a non-binding way,” she said, noting that State Rep. Jason Shoaf had asked for such a vote before he would back a bill in the Florida Legislature in Spring 2023 that would allow for a formal, binding referendum on incorporation by island voters sometime after that.

She said that some of the state requirements for incorporation, such as a total population of at least 1,500 persons in counties with a population of 75,000 or less, are “relics of a bygone area,” since they have not restricted other areas in the state of incorporating in recent years.

“What the state really cares about is whether a new municipality is going to be financially sound, or will it become a financial burden to the state?” said Bothwell.

“They put laws on the books and we supposed to go by them.  I don’t understand that,” said Commissioner Noah Lockley.

“Everything we’re talking about is a lawful process,” said Bothwell.

Members of the public who spoke out at the meeting were nearly all opposed to holding an incorporation straw poll.

“You guys have done a fine job of keeping it (the island) up. What they’re talking about is going to cost me in ways I can’t afford,” said island resident Theresa Spohrer.

Her fellow longtime island residents, Larry Hale and Barbara Sanders, spoke out in even more strident ways,

“This is the first time I’ve ever met or seen this woman,” he said. “And they pretend to represent a faction on St. George Island.

“I think we’ve been doing just fine, the island’s come a long way,” said Hale. He said stormwater drainage remains a problem to be dealt with, and that can come within the current governmental structure.

Sanders was critical of the advocates’ claim that a town could be funded by 3.0 mills, or that the state rules governing incorporation should be set aside.

“For someone to dismiss that policy as a bygone-era mistake ,I think is shortsighted,” she said. “You will find quickly taxes will be maxxed out, and homebuyers will be priced off the island, as will renters.

“I would look very suspiciously at the claim this kind of seductive idea will be low-cost,” Sanders said. “All of these illusory promises, I think if we did take this step, would go quickly awry.

“It’s a big issue, it’s an unnecessary issue,” she said. “I think basically we should kill it right now and be done with it. It’s been a big waste of people’s time.”

Teresa Bestor said she supported the straw poll. “I’m in favor myself,” she said. “If we had a straw poll on an existing ballot, we would know exactly how people really did feel.”

Jo Ellen Pearman, also an island resident, said that additional taxes “would force the little people like me off the island. This is a waste of everybody’s time. The majority don’t want to pay more money for services they have now.”

Commission Chairman Ricky Jones spoke out against the straw vote, beginning by ticking off the county tax millages in other Big Bend counties, nearly all of which Franklin is at or below.

“None of these counties except for Franklin are dealing with the federal and state government owning 90 percent of the land,” he said, noting that the county’s ad valorem millages has dropped one mill since he was first elected to the board.

“We’ve done the best we can do with providing services,” he said. “I oppose this going even to a straw poll. Too many people have worked their whole life (to live on the island). By one act of government, we can completely derail their ambitions and hopes and dreams of living there.”

In making his motion to deny, which Smokey Parrish seconded, Commissioner Noah Lockley said the backers of incorporation have offered a misleading scenario.

“If they think they’re going to run the island for three mills, there’s no way," he said.

To read more about the movement to incorporate, visit townofsgi.com

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  • Lillie

    A better title would have been "County slams door on Democracy"

    Tuesday, November 2 Report this

  • Lillie

    Maybe this title should read "county slams door on Democracy"

    Tuesday, November 2 Report this