PANAMA CITY, Fla. — A weekly report from Bay County’s RESTORE Act coordinator lays out the steps he must follow on the path to securing the county’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill money: Update the status of Pot 1 grant applications, meet with finance staff, prepare for committee workshops, catch up the assistant city manager on the Carl Gray project.

There are people to coordinate with — the EPA, the college, the military, the U.S. treasury, the remaining Gulf Coast counties — and bureaucratic terminology. Clawback provisions. Debriefing teleconference. Multiyear Implementation Plan.

It’s dry but critical work. Jack Bishop, a businessman who chaired a RESTORE citizens committee for the county, said Muller has been “worth every penny” of his salary.

“You just couldn’t make it through a minute, let alone 10 minutes, without Muller’s expertise coming into play,” Bishop said. “We would have been lost up there. That whole thing would have been just an exercise in futility without Jim Muller.”

Muller is one of several players in a governmental waiting game. Seven years after the BP oil spill, Bay County — along with others on the Gulf Coast — has yet to receive millions of dollars promised to the Panhandle for projects to restore the region’s economy and environment.

Bay County falls into two pots of money: that from the RESTORE Act, which includes all 23 Gulf Coast counties in Florida, and Triumph Gulf Coast, which includes only eight Panhandle counties most affected by the spill.

The RESTORE Act provides about $308 million through the Gulf Consortium, with $231 million of that slated for the eight counties most affected. That includes Bay County, which anticipates $34.9 million (15 percent) over 15 years. The other 15 coastal counties will split about $77 million over 15 years via the consortium. Triumph Gulf Coast, a separate entity, is slated for $1.5 billion through 2033 for the eight disproportionately affected counties.

Locally, county officials are frustrated, noting they have done everything in their power to bring the money here, but they can’t beat the ever-changing bureaucratic system full of red tape involving the federal government.

“There has been some concerns expressed about how slow this process is,” County Commissioner Guy Tunnell said at a recent county commission meeting. “It’s kind of like molasses in some ways, and then in other ways it’s, ‘Hurry up and get the information and I’ll let you know when I’m ready to make a decision.’ Dealing with the federal government has been a challenge. It takes patience and resolve.”

The county has received $18 million in initial damages, of which $3.1 million went toward installing booms to prevent oil from hitting the beaches, $9.7 million went into the county budget, $5.6 million went to the Bay Tourist Development Council’s budget and more than $2.7 million was paid to local attorneys.

But the long-term damage funds designed to pay for projects to restore the area’s economy and environment after the Deepwater Horizon spill of April 2010 have remained elusive thus far.

Bay County is not alone.

Only three of Florida’s 23 Gulf Coast counties have received RESTORE Pot 1 project awards, a pot of oil spill money over which the counties have the most control. The Gulf Consortium is a public entity created in October 2012 by interlocal agreement among Florida’s 23 Gulf Coast counties, from Escambia County in the western panhandle to Monroe County on the southern tip of the state.

As the counties continue to try to get their first projects funded, some of the larger ones have hired staff or consultants to help it through the process.

On April 15, 2013, Bay County hired Muller to be its RESTORE Act coordinator. Muller, a county employee, makes a $94,780 base salary, and a total of $126,784 with benefits.

Some other counties, like Escambia and Walton, also have hired on coordinators. Others have hired consultants. Some smaller counties have hired nobody, leaving it up to existing staff to deal with the complicated process.

Walton County Administrator Larry Jones said the county hired RESTORE Act coordinator Bill Williams two and a half years ago, saying it makes sense to have someone in this position, advocating for Walton County in the process.

“I believe that in this case having an in-house expert, for lack of a better term, representing our particular best interests, is very important, as opposed to hiring a consultant that may have other interests contrary to ours,” Jones said.

He said like in Bay County, some Walton commissioners have expressed frustration with the bureaucracy of the RESTORE process.

“Tell us what the rules are and we’ll play by rules,” he said. “But also show us what the end game looks like. How do you get to the point where funds are available? That is probably as frustrating as anything. It has been difficult to maneuver through.”

In his job, Muller has a variety of tasks, everything from submitting grant applications for the RESTORE and Triumph Gulf Coast programs to staying abreast of the latest rules.

“For each grant application, approximately nine forms must be completed, and supporting documents are also required,” Muller said.

He said everyone would like the projects funded sooner, but “This is a brand new federal grant program that had to establish regulations and processes. Everyone is learning.”

Bishop, who chaired the citizens committee that came up with a list of recommended projects to be funded from the RESTORE Pot 1, said Bay County would be lost without Muller in this process.

“I think if we didn’t have someone that specialized in this — you talk about bureaucracy in the (U.S.) Treasury and the rules — there would be no way that we’d get a dime,” Bishop said. “We’d probably be sitting here like a heavy equipment operator trying to apply for a loan.”

The RESTORE Pot 1 oil spill damage funding has to go through the U.S. Treasury, which continues to make up rules for the program, county officials said.

In July 2016, the Bay County Commission approved of a list of 15 projects local projects to be funded with the RESTORE Act Pot 1 dollars, hoping to see the first money deposited within a year. The list includes everything from high-speed Internet service to a boat ramp at Carl Gray Park.

The project list was approved, leading to the next step of applying for projects individually with the Treasury. The county began with a dock repair project for AMIkids Panama City Marine Institute, followed by upgrades at Porter Park and new artificial reefs. All but the dock repairs were returned for revision.

County Manager Bob Majka said the process for securing the funds is cumbersome, and the rules aren’t always clear.

“You have to keep in mind is this money isn’t sitting in a bank account in Bay County,” he said. “It is sitting in a trust fund in the Federal Reserve with Bay County’s name on it.

“Treasury reviews it, asks whatever questions they want, gets whatever additional information sent to them,” Majka said. “Eventually, we’ll approve the project, and at that point in time — and whoever the entity is (wanting the funding), let’s say it is a city — will enter into a signing agreement.”

The applicant then will go ahead and complete the project on its dime, hoping to get reimbursed by the Treasury.

“They will then make a request for reimbursement to the county,” Majka said. “The county will be responsible for validating that the money has been spent correctly and in accordance with federal law.”

Majka said he’s heard some complaints about how long it has taken for the funds to come in. But he pointed out that the federal RESTORE Act was only passed in July 2012 and the consent agreement with BP finalized in April 2016.

“The actual dollars (to spend on projects) didn’t exist until the federal government reached a settlement that was approved by the court all those years later,” Majka said. “And then we started through a multi-year plan implementation process the Treasury requires.”

Bay County also is hoping to get projects funded soon from the Triumph Gulf Coast program, which will bring $1.5 billion to the Panhandle through 2033 for projects to bolster the economy. There are also administrative costs associated with that program.

The Triumph board recently hired former Senate aide Susan Skelton to be its administrator at an annual salary of $89,500 a year. The board also has hired the accounting firm of Tipton Marler Garner Chastain of Panama City to perform monthly bookkeeping services, and hired lawyer Scott Remington of Clark Partington.

Allan Bense, a Bay County resident who chairs the board of the program, pointed out that $300 million in the first payment of the funds is in a bank to be spent on worthy programs.

“We want to make sure we do it right and correctly,” Bense said. “That is a lot of money. We need to be thoughtful, deliberate and very diligent in how we spend that money. But I sure don’t want it to be sitting in the coffers 10 years from now having done nothing. We are forming the application process now. We’ll hopefully have that done by the end of October.

“I would love to be able to write checks in December for projects that will enhance the economic development of Northwest Florida, those eight counties. I’d love to do it, but they have to be good projects.”


Information from: The (Panama City, Fla.) News Herald, http://www.newsherald.com