Local lawmakers to make hurricane recovery a priority in ‘tough’ budget year


Hurricane Matthew recovery will be the top budget priority for St. Johns County’s legislative delegation in the coming Florida legislative session, delegation members told attendees at their most recent meeting.

“The big issue for us in St. Johns County and big ticket item is storm recovery,” said Rep. Cyndi Stevenson of District 17 at the meeting Jan. 18 in the St. Johns County Commission chamber auditorium. “We’re certainly going to look to meet the needs of this community.”

In addition to Stevenson, the delegation includes Rep. Paul Renner from District 24 and Sen. Travis Hutson from District 7.

This will be a “tough” budget year, Stevenson said, noting that state budget revenues continue to grow modestly. Stevenson said the state projects a $7.5 million surplus this year, which she said is “very, very thin” in relation to a multibillion-dollar budget. The state over the next few years forecasts a total deficit of $3 billion. As a result, state lawmakers are taking a conservative approach and starting to determine how they can save money this year to avoid drastic steps in the future.

Stevenson closed with these comments after more than 30 local officials, interest group and agency representatives, and concerned residents requested support and funding from the delegation for various projects and initiatives, several of which were related to hurricane recovery.

Darrell Locklear, assistant administrator of operational services for St. Johns County, asked the delegation for support in increasing the state’s share of disaster recovery from 50 to 75 percent. He also requested support for an increase in public beach accesses and parking as well as improvements to existing accesses, especially for those beaches north of the St. Augustine inlet.

Renner said the current beach restoration situation leaves his team with no choice but to be resourceful in devising and prioritizing its funding.

“We’re going to be if not singularly focused at least primarily focused on that this upcoming session to the best of our ability in a very, very tight budget where we’re not going to have any access cash that we had, which means it’s going to have to come out of some other pocket,” he said.

St. Augustine City Manager John Regan requested funding for a sewer extension on West Fifth Street; a retrofit project involving 17 existing storm water outfalls in the Davis Shores neighborhood; and another retrofit project of a sewer system near the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, all deemed especially necessary projects after Hurricane Matthew. The total estimated construction value for the projects would be nearly $7 million.

Stevenson responded sympathetically to Regan’s requests.

“My heart goes out to the city and county residents,” she said. “We really suffered. We’ll get out there and do what we can.”

Not every meeting attendee requested funding. Veronica Valentine attended on behalf of property owners at Ocean Villas and Serenata Beach Club, who are seeking approval from the state to construct a sea wall and a dune to protect their 90 oceanfront properties in South Ponte Vedra. She told delegation members that outdated Florida Department of Environmental Protection requirements are preventing them from installing coastal armoring, and asked that the requirements be modified.

“We just want permission to protect our property,” Valentine said. “Time is not on our side because we’re having continual erosion.”

In addition, community members asked for assistance with insurance companies “running rampant,” while others suggested that the state create a plan to combat rising sea levels.

Hutson said he expects to attain a funding source for storm recovery by early February via an emergency order from the governor or support from the legislative budget conference, which is a series of public meetings between House and Senate representatives to complete the budget.

“We understand how bad you’re hurting,” Hutson said. “We have been working really hard with local governments and the state governments of interest, and we are going to continue to work hard to ensure we get dollars back as soon as possible.”

Florida’s 60-day legislative session will begin in March.