St. Johns County commissioners Tuesday unanimously approved allocating up to $150,000 toward dredging canals in Treasure Beach impacted by Hurricane Matthew.
This money is in addition to $80,000 allocated by the commission last June for an effort, which never came to fruition, to address some problem spots in the canals where there was sand infiltration after a previous dredge in 2014 and prior to the 2016 storm.
Joe Giammanco, disaster recovery manager for the county, told commissioners there were material deposits in the canal system put there by last year’s storm, as evidenced by differences between the 2014 post-dredge survey and the post-storm survey.
He provided an estimated total cost for a new dredging project between $1 million and $2.2 million, based on a range of bids received earlier this year, with 75 percent to eventually be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and 12.5 percent to eventually be reimbursed by the state. This, he said, would leave a local share of somewhere between $125,000 and $275,000.
But even Matthew and its aftermath have only constituted a chapter in a book of ongoing quarrels between the county and Treasure Beach property owners over the county-owned canal system.
Originally a subdivision amenity owned by the developers of Treasure Beach, the canals were deeded to the county in the 1990s in order to do an initial dredging. County officials said they had initially tried to obtain an easement, but the developers were only interested in selling. They said the only option at the time was to take ownership of them in order to help the property owners.
The latest dredging of the canals was done by Clearwater-based Gator Dredging between May and December 2014 via a contract with the county.
Commissioners in 2013 approved the establishment of a Municipal Service Benefit Unit, essentially a specially-designated taxing district, in Treasure Beach in order to raise $3 million to dredge about 5.5 miles of canals. Homeowners in the area committed to paying about $10,000 per house over 15 years to pay for that effort.
However, a group of property owners came back to the board last year and made the case they paid to have the canals dredged to a five-foot depth, but there were at least 16 locations where corrective action was already needed due to silting. Many canal users reported having trouble moving freely to the Intracoastal Waterway, particularly at low tide.
The resulting $80,000 fix, which was supposed to be tacked onto a dredge, currently underway, of the nearby Butler Boat Ramp, ultimately fell through.
On Tuesday, the board initially considered a motion to proceed with creating an additional MSBU in order to collect the funding necessary for the local match for the FEMA-eligible dredging project.
Commissioner Paul Waldron said it was a “tough situation,” considering the county’s ownership of the canals and the additional hit to the area as a result of Matthew. He proposed spending up to $150,000 out of the county’s pocket to add to the $80,000 previously approved.
Commissioner Jay Morris said the county would still have to find a way to pay for the project upfront before it’s ultimately reimbursed by FEMA and the state, assuming the project gets approval.
“The county does not have, obviously, $1 million, at all,” he said, adding the only way they could really move forward is to assume FEMA is going to come through.
Commissioner Henry Dean said he did not have a firm grip on the history of the debate over the canals, as he only joined the board late last year. Still, he said he felt taking on the cost for the local share, rather than passing it onto the homeowners, was the right thing to do.
Commissioner Jeb Smith said he didn’t have a problem spending the money as long as there’s an indisputable return on investment, adding he wanted to avoid running into the same issues as in the past.
Dean suggested the county try to work a stipulation into a dredge contract allowing a representative of the Treasure Beach community, perhaps on a weekly basis, to sign off on the work as completed.
Smith said he “completely” agreed, adding there was a clear lack of communication and cooperation with the previous dredge.
Commission Chair Jimmy Johns said sand moves.
“We’re talking about soil in water; it moves,” he said. “… No one can guarantee how long the results will last.”
During public comment, Treasure Beach property owners expressed frustration over a lack of progress over the past three years and stated their opposition to taking on an additional assessment. They also called into question the credibility of certain high-level county officials, claiming they’ve kept commissioners ill-informed and been a little lax about documentation of the matter.
Commissioners also expressed concerns about dumping more money into recovery efforts when the county has yet to receive any monetary reimbursements from FEMA or the state, 11 months after Matthew, for work already done or in progress.
The county so far has spent at least $16 million out of pocket, mostly for debris cleanup, with about $28 million obligated altogether. The first payment, about $5.5 million for the first phase of debris cleanup, isn’t expected from the feds and state for another two months.
“I am worried about whether we’ll ever get FEMA funds on anything we’ve approved so far,” Waldron said.
Johns said he had the same concerns. He said the county will be spending 2018 money to cover costs for which they won’t be reimbursed, best case scenario, until 2019.
Pointing to Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, and any storms that might follow, he questioned when the county can really expect to see the money it’s been promised, never mind what needs could be added onto the pile if the county is further impacted by severe weather anytime soon.