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Lawmakers turn optimistic on beach replenishment money

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of February 21, 2013)

State Senator Joe Negron and state Rep. Debbie Mayfield say they are pushing hard in the new legislative session for a special $9.6 million appropriation to repair damage done to Indian River County beaches by Hurricane Sandy.

Just two weeks ago, the county was facing future hurricane seasons with a critically eroded shoreline and no money to repair or reinforce it. But now, suddenly, there seems to be a fair chance the legislature will include emergency repair money in the upcoming budget.

“Due to the hurricane, I expect the legislature will set aside funds for beach repair and renourishment and I am going to make sure Indian River County gets full consideration,” Negron says.

“There is no guarantee, but I think we will get it through,” says Mayfield.

Both legislators are in good strategic positions to support the appropriation, Mayfield as a member of the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee, where the request for funds will originate, and Negron as chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. 

Out of beach repair money but with beaches badly in need of repair, the county commission sent a letter to Negron and Mayfield on Feb. 12 asking for the emergency money.

“Without this financial assistance, we risk impacting tourism that is leading the economic recovery in Indian River County and statewide and further leave miles of beaches, public infrastructure and upland development vulnerable to the next storm event,” stated the letter, which was signed by commission Chairman Joe Flescher.

The state used to have a regular appropriation to pay for beach repair and replenishment but that has been phased out since Gov. Rick Scott took office.

In the four fiscal years prior to October 2009, the county received an annual average of $6.6 million in state and federal beach restoration grants. The first fiscal year Scott was in office that number dropped to $660,000. The next fiscal year, it dwindled to $102,000 and in the current fiscal year the state is slated to contribute nothing to county beach replenishment.

The county spent all the money it had saved for beach repair on the protracted Sector 3 t replenishment project that restored 6.6 mile of beach on the northern part of the island. That phase of the county’s master plan for beach repair ended up taking years longer than it was supposed to and costing more than twice as much as budgeted after the commission decided to use trucked-in sand instead of sand pumped directly from the ocean floor.

The $15-million Sector 3 project was finally finished last summer, six months before Hurricane Sandy blew by in October, throwing up 10-foot waves that washed away a majority of the newly placed sand.

The City of Vero Beach and private entities such as hotels and subdivisions scrambled to find the money to do their own emergency repairs in the wake of the storm, but the county was at a standstill.

“We don’t have another spare $12 million [to replace the lost sand and protect the coast],” said County Budget Director Jason Brown in early February.

The idea for a special appropriation originated with William “Tuck” Ferrell, a newly-appointed member of the county’s Beach and Shore Preservation Advisory Committee.

He appeared before the county commission Feb. 5, asking it to send a letter to area legislators requesting emergency repair funds. He said there was a precedent for the action because the state passed a similar appropriation after the 2004 hurricanes. 

Commissioners jumped at the idea and approved a letter on Feb. 14. Attached to the letter was a series of photographs and illustrations prepared by county coastal engineer James Gray showing the degree of damage suffered by county beaches.

By the end of the week, Negron and Mayfield were maneuvering in Tallahassee to insert the appropriation into the budget for the next fiscal year.

“I have put it in as one of my top priorities on the subcommittee,” says Mayfield.

“The county attached a really well-prepared document to the letter that clearly lays out what happened and makes a solid case for the destruction caused by the storm and the need for repair,” Negron says.

“We are in the early stages of putting the budget together, with subcommittees crafting it, piece by piece. In a few weeks, we will start to see some line items, and there will be a line for beach repair. It is too soon to know how much the amount will be.”

“Joe is in a good position to make sure it stays in the budget once it is in there,” says Mayfield.

Ferrell says Brevard County legislators are working with Mayfield and Negron for multi-county beach repair funds, upping the chances for success. He appeared in front of the Brevard County Commission two weeks before his IRC appearance and that board sent a letter to Brevard legislators prior to the IRC letter.

“[State Sen.] Thad Altman and Representatives Tom Goodman and Steve Crisafulli are all working to pass a special appropriation to repair the beaches,” says Ferrell, who owns a cattle ranch in Brevard County and lives in Ambersand Beach. “I have had a number of follow-up phone calls from their staffs since the letter went out. You need a strong political coalition to get these things done.”

Mayfield says she thinks she can generate support on her committee for the special appropriation and Negron believes the House and Senate will be able to agree on an amount for inclusion in the budget that will go to Gov. Scott.

Whether Scott will sign a budget with beach restoration money included or strip it out with a line-item veto remains to be seen.

Until now, he has been known mainly for his draconian cuts to beach replenishment, water-quality and other environmental programs.

“I can’t guarantee you it will fly with the governor,” Mayfield says. “But I have spoken with his staff that oversees this part of the budget to impress on them how important it is and I don’t think he would go in and veto it once it is in there.”

“The governor in many presentations has stated that he wanted to support the local economy and tourism, so I am hopeful he will favor the appropriation,” says Fletcher, who scheduled Ferrell’s appearance before the county commission and coordinated preparation of the letter to Negron and Mayfield. “This is not something we could plan for and we need additional assistance from the state.”

“If you lose the beach, you lose everything – the turtles, the tourists, the homes and the property taxes they pay,” says Ferrell. “If we do nothing, we will end up with a seawall along A1A.”