Fla. Counties Urged To Band Together For More Control Over Oil Spill Money

Aug 20, 2012

It’s been more than a month since the passage of the federal RESTORE Act, which will direct penalty money from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the worst in history, to Florida and other affected states.

In anticipation of those funds, several Florida counties affected by the spill are trying to form a coalition with the hope that they’ll leverage more power over how to divide the money once it gets to the state.

The federal government holds BP oil and other companies responsible for the worst oil spill in history, in the Gulf of Mexico, in 2010.  The RESTORE act, signed into law in early July, lays out a formula for dividing up whatever fines end up being assessed. Florida’s share is estimated to range from $520 million $3.6 billion.

Florida Association of Counties president and Leon County Commissioner, Bryan Desloge, says it’s money badly needed to offset the financial and environmental effects of the spill.

“This is a game changer for this part of the state," he says.

The RESTORE Act requires states to form internal decision-making bodies that would decide how to allocate part of the money. And, the Florida Association of Counties wants the 23 counties on the Gulf Coast to form a consortium within the next six weeks.

Association executive director Chris Holley spoke to commissioners and administrators from most of those counties in Panama City Beach. He’s urging them to join together as soon as possible so, collectively, they can participate in the ongoing, complicated federal process of dividing up the money.

“We want to be involved in those discussions. We want to watch the rule-making process and make sure that our questions get answered clearly. So there’s a great deal of work in the next six months that we need to monitor…when I say, ‘We,’ that this consortium needs to monitor," he says.

But first, 23 county commissions have to agree it’s a good idea to band together. And that means bringing in 15 counties to a discussion that eight Panhandle counties have already been having for a long time. That’s because those counties, from Escambia eastward to Wakulla, were most directly affected by the spill and were instrumental in getting RESTORE passed in the first place.

At the most recent Association of Counties meeting, one of the original eight at the table, Franklin County Commissioner Pinky Jackal, said she has some trepidation about creating a joint decision-making body with the other 15 counties. 

“Will we be required to have their agreement on the eight-affected-county projects or ideas, going forward? That concerns me if the answer is yes.”

John Wayne Smith, a consultant who lobbied for the RESTORE act on behalf of the group, said the short answer to her question is yes. But, there’s a lot of flexibility in how the consortium could be structured, with the possibility for subgroups that would tackle issues like tourism or fishing, or subgroups that would vote on just original-eight-county issues. The important thing, Smith says, is to get a group formed as quickly as possible and work out the details later.

“We don’t believe that the state has a plan," he says. "We believe that there’s a lot of synergy and a leadership that’s already been established at a local government level, and we believe that if no one picks up the ball, with some deadlines that are imposed, that Florida could miss some opportunities."

The association has met with Gov. Rick Scott’s office to offer spots on the consortium to the state. But, outgoing Association of Counties president Bill Williams says, the governor hadn’t expected the RESTORE Act to pass, and the state is playing catch-up with the counties in deciding what its role will be.

“We don’t have support from the state right now. Ask who’s in charge. Who’s running the program at the state right now? It can’t be answered. So, we do need the governor. We need a partnership," he says.

Whichever counties decide to join the consortium will also have to contend with a new Florida law that set up a separate structure for distributing the BP money, in some ways that conflict with what’s in RESTORE. The bill, which was sponsored by incoming Florida Senate president Don Gaetz, doesn’t mention creating a consortium at all, for example. County association director Holley says, the group must be aware of these potential challenges to their efforts, but the counties must forge ahead anyway.

“I would hope that if the Legislature sees that we have a structure in place that is implemented with the intent of the federal legislation and looking at the state legislation, that they will have a comfort level that the structure is adequate and can implement the state’s priorities as well as the counties’ priorities," he says.

The counties that join would collectively pay about $50,000 in administrative costs, but they’d be reimbursed with RESTORE money eventually.

It could still be years before the federal government assesses the fines and decides exactly how to distribute them. The association, though, wants the 23 counties to decide whether to join the consortium before its next meeting, on Sept. 19.