Money for Weems, Apalach infrastructure, miss state budget

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Three big ticket items, including a proposed $7 million for George E. Weems Memorial Hospital, failed to make it into the 2022-23 state budget, but Franklin County’s representatives in Tallahassee are hoping grants, or other pockets of state money, might provide help in the future.

All three House appropriation projects, whether funded or not, were withdrawn from consideration March 12, and considered “indefinitely postponed” when the final $122 billion budget came out as the legislative session ended with the traditional hanky drop March 14.

The projects dropped from both the House and Senate budgets included a one-time sum of $7 million from the state’s general revenue fund that would go through the Florida Department of Health towards a rebuilding of Weems. 

In addition, two one-time appropriations - $1 million of general revenue through the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to fund the Apalachicola wastewater treatment plant, and $600,000 through DEP to fund a study of Apalachicola inflow and infiltration - failed to cut the mustard.

“My office is working to find grants that may be applied to these projects,” said State Rep. Jason Shoaf (R-Port St. Joe), who represents the 7th District. “They can be resubmitted next year, but it will also depend on what the county requests.”

One item, championed by both Shoaf and State Sen. Loranne Ausley (D-Tallahassee), who represents the 3rd District, that passed was the Alligator Point Water Resources District’s right to hold a vote next year to see if residents outside the district’s boundaries are willing to become part of the district.

The only people eligible to vote would be those registered to vote within the county, and who reside in the area of the expanded boundary. As it stands now, there are only about 127 households in that area, compared to about 650 within the district.

If the measure is approved by these voters, those homes brought into the district would have to pay the roughly 1.77 mills levied on properties, but would no longer have to pay a $30 per month surcharge.

In terms of grants, Franklin County did pretty well in getting items included in the budget, although the monies won’t be funded for certain until Governor Ron DeSantis gives them final approval. The governor has the authority to line-item veto any projects funded in the budget, which if approved by DeSantis, would be effective July 1.

A release from Ausley’s office outlined a list of projects included in the budget.

Franklin County’s two $200,000 requests for the Florida Recreation Development Assistance program - for Eastpoint’s Vrooman Park and for St. George Island playground improvements at Lighthouse Park - both made it into the budget.

In terms of historic preservation money, the Southeast Archaeology Foundation looks to secure $383,350 for a survey of Prospect Bluff sites in northern Franklin County just south of Sumatra. This area, often referred to as the “Negro Fort,” is where Fort Gadsden once stood, before it, and its renegade population of Indians and escaped slaves, were decimated by an attack by U.S. forces led by Gen. Andrew Jackson.

The Apalachicola Area Historical Society secured $249,280 for further restoration of the Raney House, which will include replacing the columns that grace the front porch.

The Franklin County Maritime Heritage Museum, on the site of Buddy Ward Park on the western edge of Apalachicola, is in line to receive $188,500 to bolster its exhibition space. Apalachicola’s proposed Black History Trail, featuring historic interpretive displays throughout the Hill neighborhood, would receive $50,000.

In Carrabelle, the Wayside Park at Carrabelle Beach would get $156,056 for repairs, while the Carrabelle Lighthouse Association would receive $84,000 for improvements to the Crooked River Lighthouse park, and the city of Carrabelle would get $41,000 for renovations at the Old City Hall, which would focus on putting in an elevator at what is now the Carrabelle History Museum.

The Franklin’s Promise Coalition is in line to receive $122,000 for cultural and historical efforts, while the Forgotten Coast Cultural Coalition would get $25,000 to assist in work along these lines.

In other matters of the legislative session, Shoaf secured approval of the “No Patient Left Alone Act” which aims to prohibit the restriction of essential caregivers from visiting loved ones in long-term care facilities during times of pandemic.

Essentially, the bill differentiates between two types of caregiver – general visitation, which can still be limited in some circumstances, and essential care, which is to be allowed on a daily basis, no matter what.

The legislation makes clear the facilities cannot require visitors to submit proof of any vaccination or immunization for visitation rights. The policies and procedures must allow consensual physical contact between a visitor and resident. It is expected to be approved by Gov. Ron DeSantis. 

Shoaf also fought hard for the passage of a tourism tax bill to allow a portion of bed taxes be available for public safety in fiscally constrained Florida counties.

The bill passed through several House committees, but did not make it through the legislative processes in time for the entire chamber to vote on it.

Ausley, who made broadband expansion a top priority going into this legislative session in January, was able to secure an allocation of $400 million in federal Covid relief funds to fund statewide broadband expansion. However, because this money has not arrived yet, lawmakers passed a framework through which they can distribute these funds at a later date.

Lawmakers allocated $320,000 in operational funds so that the Office of Broadband, which was expanded greatly by a bill co-sponsored by Ausley in 2020, can hire a full-time employee and contractors. However, broadband legislation sponsored by Ausley this year that aimed at creating a broadband deployment task force within this office died in committee processes.

“It was, I think, a really good session for North Florida,” Ausley told The Star. “Number one there will be a 5.3 percent pay raise for all state employees… Everybody in the state and state government supports so much of our economies.”

“Then, $400 million for broadband. That's something I've fought for for the last couple of years, and $25 million for small county infrastructure funds, and a significant amount of increase for the small county roads and bridges,” she continued.

Star Reporter Wendy Weitzel contributed to this article.

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