St. Johns County commissioners on Tuesday voted 4-0 in favor of writing a letter of support for $30 million in additional state monies to complete a debris cleanup effort along the St. Johns River that’s quickly running low on funds.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection earlier this month began removing debris related to Hurricane Matthew in the waterway from Nassau County down to Brevard County, but the $10.5 million project is only about 25-30 percent complete.
Officials have said only hurricane-related debris in the river would be removed and that any debris located on or attached to private property would not be removed. Contractors in St. Johns County began along the Julington Creek shoreline and are working their way south to remove and dispose of vegetative and structural debris in the waterway, but they haven’t made it too far, as of yet. Linda Stoughton, director of emergency management for the county, said contractors have been working in the county since March 6, bringing in two barges with cranes that have removed 8-10 loads of debris a day. She said the current allocation of $10.5 million for this regional effort is expected to run out in less than two weeks.
Meanwhile, contractors have only made it as far south as the Shands Bridge, and Stoughton said she expects they will remain focused on that immediate area for the duration of the original, funded project.
“I don’t think they’re going to make it very far,” she said, adding the county’s southern residents along the river haven’t seen the barges at all. She said the shoreline along the river is deceivingly long, considering all the grooves, estuaries and other nooks and crannies where debris has collected. She said the size of debris collected as well the size of overall loads removed have increased in size despite the lack of progress in terms of the length of shoreline covered. Removal, for these reasons, has been “slow and costly,” Stoughton said, adding FDEP has “admitted” to under-funding the effort with its initial estimate. She said commissioners in Brevard County were considering essentially the same letter of support, that Putnam County would be considering a similar item at its next meeting and that Clay County was also “active” in its support for seeing the project through.
According to Stoughton, the river cleanup is reimbursable for FDEP through the Federal Emergency Management Agency at 75 percent, “if they do it correctly.”
Largely as a formality, commissioners voted 4-0 in favor of accepting easements recently secured to put emergency sand behind a couple dozen homes in Vilano Beach affected by Hurricane Matthew. St. Johns County secured 153 of 154 temporary construction easements it needed in just 11 days.
The one holdout was a property owner whose property is in the middle of the sand placement area, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Florida Inland Navigation District said they can work around that property without taking legal action.
The project is expected to begin by the end of this month and conclude in June, but getting sand behind a stretch of homes between just north of Third Street and San Pelayo Court has been no small task. Prior to the hurricane, the Corps and FIND had an existing maintenance project scheduled to dredge a portion of the Intracoastal Waterway and pipe the dredged sand to Anastasia State Park. More recently, the Corps received additional federal funds to dredge the St. Augustine Inlet and do the same. Shortly after the storm, however, the two agencies and St. Johns County worked with the St. Augustine Port, Waterway and Beach District to modify the dredge contract and place all dredged sands behind homes to the north.
The Corps and FIND covered the additional costs to provide nearly 250,000 cubic yards of beach-quality sand at no expense to the county.
Commissioners by a 4-0 vote approved a new agreement with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences for its county-subsidized operations at the Hastings Agricultural Extension Center. The county’s audit last year of the university’s operations on the site revealed some accountability issues and sloppy bookkeeping after a months-long wait for the responding records.
Deputy County Attorney Regina Ross said the county has a “much better product” with the new agreement, which is for an initial five-year term, and that the university is “on board” with the provisions. She said more reporting will be required of the university for county-backed programs and a statement of work will have to be provided every year, congruent with the county’s fiscal cycle to ensure plans are reviewed prior to approvals for funding.
Ross said there will also be quarterly invoicing and that UF/IFAS, upon submission of each invoice, will have to provide updates on work completed and project status. She said the county also has the right to reject an invoice rather than having to wait for an audit in the event the county identifies a deficiency.
“There are higher accountability measures through this particular contract versus the last one,” Commissioner Jeb Smith said. “I appreciate the tightening up on it.”
County Attorney Patrick McCormack, anticipating administrative complaints to be filed against the District 23 Medical Examiner’s Office, requested and received the County Commission’s go-ahead to represent the matter and anyone named in the complaints.
The state’s Medical Examiners Commission on Feb. 24 recommended disciplinary action for Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Predrag Bulic and associate medical examiner Dr. Frederick Hobin, both involved in the investigation into the 2010 death of Michelle O’Connell.
The vote came after a panel found probable cause both men violated Florida statutes and “practice guidelines” in their handling — and office’s handling — of documents associated with the case. The same panel also found McCormack’s office to be slow to respond to requests for case documents but McCormack told The Record he and his staff were “meticulous” and that they “did not delay whatsoever.”
McCormack told commissioners representation should come at no significant cost to the county other than time and some court fees. He said he does not believe there will be an “actual conflict” with the county or its departments in any such representation, but if any adverse conflict were to arise, he could either seek outside council or advise the named individuals to do so. O’Connell died of a gunshot wound through her mouth on Sept. 2, 2010, in the home of her boyfriend Jeremy Banks, who was, and still is, a St. Johns County sheriff’s deputy. The gun that fired the fatal shot was Banks’ service weapon. The death, initially investigated by the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office, was eventually ruled a suicide by the local medical examiner’s office. Members of O’Connell’s family have said she wouldn’t have killed herself and some have questioned the integrity of the original investigation and believe Banks is responsible, though he has denied any wrongdoing.