Saturday, April 21, 2018
News Roundup

Pasco commission debates how to spend Restore Act dollars

DADE CITY — Pasco County's share of federal Restore Act dollars is expected to trickle in over 15 years, but that didn't slow a debate this week over how to spend it.

Pasco is projected to get $12.7 million as a member of the 23-county Gulf Coast Consortium that is devising a state spending plan for the federal Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities and Revived Economies Act of 2012. The legislation created a federal trust fund to distribute the fines from BP stemming from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Pasco was required to send its recommended projects to the consortium by Dec. 2, and the contents and ranking of that list sparked substantial debate among county commissioners Tuesday.

The list varies from developing a county park on Ranch Road land now owned by the Florida Governmental Utility Authority to building artificial reefs and investing in substantial storm-water drainage improvements along the coast.

Commissioner Mike Wells Jr. wanted a greater emphasis on stormwater drainage and lamented that two of the three highest-ranked projects by the county's advisory committee were artificial reefs.

"That's the wrong message,'' said Wells. "We need to reprioritize this.''

Commissioner Ron Oakley agreed that flood prevention should be a higher priority, but that sentiment was doused by County Attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder.

"This is not flood remediation money,'' he told the commission.

"Before you try to use the money for legitimate public purposes, I have no question about that, but this money has strings attached,'' Steinsnyder said. "You have to be careful how you reprioritize.''

Commissioner Kathryn Starkey questioned the Ranch Road park, particularly because it also would require paying down a $16 million FGUA debt for acquiring private utilities.

"I don't see how putting in basketball courts is helping our environment,'' she said.

Mariano, a member of the county's Restore Act advisory committee, said locating the park and stormwater retention on the same site could be instrumental in getting state dollars as well.

Looking for additional money is one of the keys to completing the project list. As requested by the consortium, Pasco submitted $26.1 million worth of spending ideas — even though its share will be $12.7 million — with an eye toward leveraging financial help from other federal and state sources.

The county, for instance, already has applied for cooperative funding from the Southwest Florida Water Management District for three of the stormwater projects.

Eventually, the commission unanimously approved the list as proposed. The consortium and the governor's office both must approve the projects over the next 18 months. The payout is expected to take 15 years.

Curtis Franklin, the county's Restore Act coordinator, emphasized that the list should not be considered final.

"We're obviously going to have to have a lot more say in it,'' he told the commission. "Basically, it's our starting point.''

A major change on the project list from earlier versions is the downsizing of a so-called Coastal Environmental Research Network. Originally projected to cost $11 million, the project was cut to $2.1 million to cover renovations to the Pasco School District's Energy and Marine Center, developing an environmental academy and building a welcome center at Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park. The $9 million reduction eliminated the planned infrastructure to connect environmental centers all along the gulf coast.

"I'm disappointed it got chopped so low,'' Starkey said. "I think that project has economic opportunity for the county.''

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