BP spill money to help storm-battered FL counties

BP spill money to help storm-battered FL counties

News Service of Florida
News Service of Florida
February 25, 2019

TALLAHASSEE --- Money from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill will help governments in four storm-battered Northwest Florida counties with anticipated property-tax losses caused by Hurricane Michael.

The Triumph Gulf Coast Board agreed Monday to use $15 million for losses believed incurred by local governments in Bay, Franklin, Gulf and Wakulla counties. Triumph Gulf Coast, a non-profit created by the Legislature, will provide the money from the state’s $2 billion BP settlement stemming from the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The board initially proposed setting aside the money through bridge loans to the local governments. Instead, it agreed to ask the four counties to each submit a list of projected property-tax losses from the storm that will be incurred by the counties, municipalities and school districts.

Commissioner Allan Bense of Panama City called the change a “fair balance” in providing the region with assistance and for members of the Legislature who have questioned the use of Triumph money for the disaster.

“We have a fine line too,” Bense, a former House speaker, said. “I also don’t want for the rest of Florida to think Triumph is going to take care of Michael, because that’s not our mission.”

Triumph Gulf Coast is responsible for distributing to Bay, Escambia, Franklin, Gulf, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Wakulla and Walton counties three-quarters of the money the state will get over the next 12 years through the BP settlement.

As part of its charge from the Legislature, Triumph is expected to direct money to regional economic projects that have wide impacts rather than directly to individual businesses.

Triumph Executive Director Susan Skelton said by providing property-tax relief --- covering up to 50 percent of any projected losses --- the money could be distributed by the end of April.

“These funds are not meant to solve the problems of the world,” Skelton said. “These funds are an emergency relief opportunity to get cash-advance ad valorem money into the local entities that need the money now, to begin doing projects that are reimbursable by FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) at a later date.”

Triumph Chairman Don Gaetz, a former Senate president from Niceville, said he doesn’t anticipate the funding will reach the 50 percent ceiling in any of the four counties because of the amount of storm damage across the region.

The board anticipates a new state budget, which will be put together during the legislative session that begins March 5, will include a bridge-loan program that exceeds $15 million, Skelton said.

The availability of the Triumph money comes as state lawmakers continue to submit legislation --- totaling more than $600 million in the House --- that seeks aid for the region, which continues to wait for additional federal assistance after Congress did not pass a disaster-relief package last week.

Florida has spent $1.13 billion responding to Hurricane Michael, a figure that could more than double and already tops Hurricane Irma, which caused damage to a wider area of the state in 2017, according to Senate President Bill Galvano.

Hurricane Michael made landfall Oct. 10 in Mexico Beach as a Category 4 storm and caused massive damage as it moved north into Georgia.

Galvano said Friday the state is awaiting “guidance” from the local communities about rebuilding.

“There may be some new opportunities now for better infrastructure in those areas, but we need guidance because I feel like you have some portion of the population that may not come back there,” the Bradenton Republican said. “In all silos, from education to health care, you have hospital issues, you have schools that literally have holes in them. Hopefully, with the right planning we’ll rebuild and rebuild with an eye towards preparation as well.”

Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who represents parts of the eastern Panhandle, has filed a bill (SB 376) that would designate $50 million a year from the state’s Land Acquisition Trust Fund to help with Hurricane Michael recovery.

In the House, Northwest Florida lawmakers from both parties had asked for at least $603 million as of Monday morning to fund more than 100 different storm-related issues, from government operations and school repairs to flood management and shelters.

Rep. Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, has asked for at least $400 million. His requests include four bills directed at Mexico Beach, for stormwater repairs and beach renourishment, that combine to seek $63.8 million.

Rep. Brad Drake, R-Eucheeanna, has recently filed 15 storm-related bills that, if they all made it through the budget process, would bring $95 million to the region.

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