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Rural Counties Take Their Concerns, Wants To State Lawmakers

Out of the 67 counties in Florida, there are almost 30 that have fewer than 75,000 people. The smallest is Liberty County, in the Panhandle. Florida’s rural counties aren’t home to any big cities, and they can get overlooked at the state Capitol. Now, they’re working to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Water quality, infrastructure, concerns about unfunded mandates. All were front and center Thursday as commissioners, administrators and mayors of rural counties and cities brought their concerns to state lawmakers.

The Capitol courtyard was filled with booths highlighting what these areas have to offer, such as Eco-Tourism in Ginnie Springs, the Suwannee River and Lake Blanding.  

“All of us are always pushing Eco-tourism because we are beautiful,” Stark City Manager, Bill Milner said. “We’ve got from the Suwannee Rive over to Camp Blanding and Kenansville Lake, all of North Central Florida all the way from Tallahassee to Jacksonville is all beautiful land, it’s available and we want to keep it clean and let the most citizens enjoy it.”

Those areas want to stay that way, but there’s conflict between economic growth and environmental preservation. That’s happening in Gilchrist County, where Nestle owns a water bottling plant and is drawing millions of gallons of water from Ginnie Springs.

“One of the legislation they need to look at is our Nestle Water Bottling Plant,” said Gilchrist Administrative Assistant Donna Creamer.

“We want that company to be successful, but there’s legislation that wants to shut it down and to [us] [the company] would be very beneficial for the county because they would put test wells in. They will make sure the water is clean. If they are going to sell it, they are going to keep our water clean and we really would like legislation to step up and do it.”

Creamer says it’s important for rural communities to work together in getting lawmakers’ attention.

“We are competing with all the big guys, so it’s nice when we come together, we unite and help each other,” she said.  

The night before the counties set up in the courtyard, they attended a reception where they got to meet with legislators face-to-face and express some of their concerns.

“Many of them were unaware of the things because they have so many different responsibilities, but it gave us a chance to bring them up to speed so they can really see what we are doing and hopefully it will affect some of things they put into place as it relates to legislature,” Economic Development Director for Columbia County, Glenn Hunter said.

There is legislation is aimed at promoting rural Florida.

Sen. Bill Montford, (D-Tallahassee), is pitching tax credits to help recover jobs and businesses in rural areas. Other proposals deal with expanding broadband internet services and promoting business growth.

“One [issue] is that small counties are always having to emphasize is mandates that are unfunded by the state government, albeit well-intended and a lot of time they will do carve-outs or exemptions for counties under certain populations, so we just need to remind them sometimes, as the legislature has said this year, ‘one broad brush does not fit all counties.’ What’s good in Miami, Hillsborough, and Duval might not fit in Bradford, Union, [and] Baker,” Milner said.

 “We can’t be left out we have to be heard. That’s why we are here, to show that we try to unite to build a stronger community in our community and other communities in rural counties,” said Suwannee County Commissioner Clyde Fleming.

Kayla Gallagher is a Digital Media Production and Political Science student from West Palm Beach, Florida studying at Florida State University. She's written for a variety of online and print publications such as the FSView & Florida Flambeau. Aside from school and interning, Kayla works at FSU as a University Ambassador, giving tours to prospective students.