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County hires consultant to secure BP money

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By Lou Elliott Jones

Levy County is moving ahead with hiring a consultant to aid in planning and securing a share of the expected billions in fine money to be paid by BP for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2011. 

Bill Williams, a former Gulf County Commissioner, did a presentation in a Tuesday meeting on the RESTORE Act passed by Congress that details how money paid in civil fines by BP, Transocean, Halliburton and others is to be distributed and what the county can do to secure the funds. 

Commission Chair Ryan Bell, who represents the county on the state commission that will determine how the money will be spent, asked the commission in its Dec. 18 meeting to consider hiring Williams for $18,000 to gather information and put together a presentation on how the money will be spent. While the commission did not take action on Tuesday, it has asked the county attorney to look over Williams’ proposed contract and report back at the next meeting so they can take action. 

Williams said the federal law would send 80 percent of the civil penalties paid by various companies charged under the federal Clean Water Act and the Oil Pollution Act, back to the five states affected by the spill. Those affected are: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. 

The money sent back to Florida would be split 75/25 with 75 percent going to eight counties most affected, like Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, and 25 percent going to 15 other Gulf Coast counties, including Levy County. 

Williams noted that BP recently entered an agreement on criminal charges where it agreed to pay $4.5 billion in fines. The criminal fines will be kept by the federal government. 

Estimates of the civil fine money to be paid by BP have ranged from $5 billion to $25 billion, Williams said. On Jan. 3, Transocean limited, owner of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, agreed to pay $1 billion in civil fines in connection with the spill and $400 million in criminal penalties. 

“The question is how do we position ourselves to execute the terms,” Williams said. He said any plan for spending the money would need the backing of fact-based science and would need to incorporate the inclusion of tourism, education and business sectors in the planning. He suggested the county appoint a nine- to 11-member advisory board to meet with him twice a month to finalize the county’s plan.  

“It’s critical that the small counties work together,” he said. And he mentioned that there is a BP tourism marketing fund that still has $12 million to be distributed in grants. Levy County Visitor Bureau Director Carol McQueen, who attended the meeting, has applied for a $2.5 million grant to promote the county’s seafood and seafood festivals. The county was not chosen in the first round of  $34 million in grants, but is still in the running for a portion of the second round. 

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to change the face of North Florida,” Williams said, “to create the economic engine that we never had.” 

Commissioner Mike Joyner of Morriston (R-District 3) said, “Our fishermen and oystermen are in trouble. They are having problems. Is it possible to help them with this?”

“Yessir, you can help these folks,” Williams said. “But you have to be able to take that project and link it to the science.” 

Dana Sheffield of Fanning Springs asked if the county had to tie the projects to actual damage caused by the spill to obtain the money and Williams said with the federal spending, the answer was yes, but with the money Congress directed to the state under the RESTORE Act, the answer was no. “This is pure penalty money,” Williams said. 

He advised the commissioners to take in all the data and “get into the game.” to obtain the money. 

Bell said the county needs to know what it is getting involved in. Williams said the large project book that was done for Wakulla County for the RESTORE money cost $10,000 to prepare and print. 

The commissioners also agreed by consensus to each come up with a list of 10 people to consider to serve on the advisory panel. 

While the county does not have an application process in place for people on the RESTORE board, interested individuals can contact the Board of County Commissioners Office at 352-486-5218 or contact their individual commissioner.