Many changes included in a draft of St. Johns County’s Legislative Action Plan for next year are a reflection of all the issues that have come up in the past year, particularly dealing with the aftermath of two hurricanes.
There are some significant requests within the 91-page document for all four corners of the county, each of which faces its own set of challenges. Many of the issues predating Hurricane Matthew in October 2016 or Hurricane Irma in September were exacerbated by either or both of the storms. All in all, there are 17 new requests, the majority of which come down to funding, included in the latest version of the plan.
Michael Ryan, spokesman for the county, said a good chunk of this year’s plan is the product of a “very active year” due to hurricane response, the possible dissolution of the Town of Hastings, and ongoing needs regarding road construction and improvement throughout the county.
County commissioners on Tuesday will set their priorities ahead of the 2018 Legislative Session. Although the start of the state’s Legislative Session is still months away, Ryan said the legislative process is really a year-round undertaking.
In the meantime, the county will host a meeting of the Legislative Delegation, consisting of Sen. Travis Hutson, Rep. Cyndi Stevenson and Rep. Paul Renner, 9 a.m. to noon on Oct. 20 in the county auditorium, 500 San Sebastian View.
Last year, just two weeks before Matthew swept the coast and inflicted millions of dollars in damage upon St. Johns County, the board forwarded its legislative platforms for transportation, economic development and unfunded mandates/protection of local government revenue options to the Northeast Florida Regional Council as priority items. In December, the board formally added requests for state and federal support for recovery efforts related to the storm to its plan.
This year, the county will continue to request support for federal and state funding for long-term recovery efforts for Matthew and, now, Irma, within all impacted Florida counties.
The county will also request $1 million for the design and permitting of an effort called the Deep Creek Channel Project to alleviate flooding in southwest St. Johns County around the congested waterway and to minimize future damage to residential, commercial, agricultural and government property and assets.
According to the draft plan, funding for this initial effort to clear the creek would be used “in conjunction with the creation of a programmatic long-term maintenance mission.”
As written in plan: “Recent disasters such as Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Irma, and frequent nor’easter conditions have detrimentally impacted the natural drainage outfalls in this part of St. Johns County. Deep Creek is a vital drainage route in St. Johns County with no alternate drainage routes for businesses and homes within this watershed.”
There’s also a mix of pre-storm and post-storm requests related to beach renourishment along the county’s coastline.
Next year’s plan includes support for a request by the St. Augustine Port, Waterway and Beach District for $352,464 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reimburse the district for emergency work it funded upfront to repair a coastal breach created by Matthew that damaged the Summer Haven River and Matanzas Inlet.
On behalf of the City of St. Augustine, the county is requesting the Florida Legislature support legislation that would establish a pilot program for small coastal cities to improve resiliency to sea level rise. It is also supporting appropriations to increase funding for increasing the resiliency of water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure in St. Augustine.
The county will again request $25 million in federal and state funding to eliminate failing septic tanks and stormwater runoff problems in West Augustine, Armstrong and North Hastings. It is also requesting (on behalf of St. Augustine) $6.86 million over the next two years for eliminating sanitary sewer overflow into local and state waters.
Staying on the topic of water management, the county will request $2 million for storm water drainage improvements and pavement rehabilitation along Ponte Vedra Boulevard between Corona Road and Miranda Road, where current drainage on the heavily-traveled corridor has been deemed “inadequate.”
The county’s possible takeover of the Town of Hastings, pending a vote by the town’s residents this November, has also prompted the county to look at ways to offset those anticipated costs.
To this end, the county is requesting $1.1 million for the repair and replacement of water infrastructure on behalf of Hastings. It is also seeking full or partial forgiveness of the debt owed by the town, should the county take on operational and capital costs that would come with dissolution.
“Our communities as a whole are evolving,” Ryan said. “We’ve all learned many lessons from the two hurricanes, which have highlighted improvements that can be made, mainly with flooding. I think that’s pretty evident to most people in these communities.”
Under the county’s transportation-related requests, there are a lot of big roads that need big money over the next couple years, especially in the north, where many projects including significant residential and commercial components are coming online.
Transportation, meaning funding for new roads as well as improvements, is consistently a legislative priority of the board. At the top of this year’s extensive project list is a request for $95 million for the proposed State Road 313 Extension/Bypass from State Road 207 to State Road 16, as well as a request for $30 million for design, right-of-way acquisition, and construction from S.R. 16 north to Woodlawn Road.
The county is also seeking a requirement that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ St. Augustine Community Based Outpatient Clinic “to be responsive to the health, safety, and welfare needs of St. Johns County veterans in a manner that is consistent with the Clinic’s identified mission and responsibilities.” What has become a years-long process to build a new permanent clinic faced yet another setback in August when the VA announced it would commence a new, competitive lease procurement process, complete with a revised set of parameters and requirements, for the facility.
Under requests related to dealing with unfunded mandates, the county is opposing legislation that would prevent or delay the transfer of incarcerated individuals from the county jail to state prisons, as compliance with such a measure could cost more than $1.6 million annually.
The draft plan includes requests new and old across a broad spectrum of issues of which the above are just a sample. Commissioners will have the opportunity Tuesday to fine-tune the document and add or subtract any items.