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Okaloosa County Seal20th Annual State of the County Report
for Okaloosa County (8 June 2019)

Many thanks to Ted Corcoran and the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce (CoC) for hosting the 20th annual State of the County Report for Okaloosa County. This is the local League’s signature event, and provides residents and other attendees an opportunity to meet local elected officials and get answers to their questions about county government and operations.

2019 Panel

The 2019 panel included Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) Chair Kelly Windes, Okaloosa County School District Vice Chair Tim Bryant and Okaloosa County Judge Angela Mason. Each panelist shared insights into the state of the county from his/her perspective (Spoiler Alert: It’s pretty good) and answered questions from attendees on a range of topics.

County Commission Chair Kelly Windes

BCC Chair Kelly WindesCommissioner Windes touched on several hot button issues, moving south to north. First, he noted that some order will be imposed on the many vendors currently operating near Crab Island starting this fall. Currently these floating businesses have little to no oversight, which not infrequently results in public safety issues. Some have even been flouting existing laws (e.g., by selling French fries for $21 and including a “free” alcoholic beverage to evade liquor laws). After the end of this summer season, none of these businesses will be allowed to anchor overnight in the Bay, but must return to their docks. Additional oversight will be imposed gradually to bring the situation under control and protect tourists and locals. In other south county news, funding has been obtained to complete the Azalea Connector in Destin, but the Destin City Council is now balking at accepting those funds for the project.

Commission Chair Windes also listed several county success stories. At the top of that list is the new County Courthouse, which is now a going concern and a beautiful addition to the City of Crestview. He also touted the BOCC’s “Go With Your Strengths” program, which has so far generated  enough funds to service 40% of the debt incurred to finance the new courthouse. He also thanked the CoC for its help promoting the half cent surtax approved by county voters last year, which will generate $19M overall for badly needed county infrastructure projects. Distribution of the funds has been carefully allocated around the county and its municipalities, and many infrastructure projects have already been approved. In other infrastructure news, funding for completion of the SW Crestview Bypass has been identified and final approval is in the home stretch. He made a shout-out to Representative Matt Gaetz, who flew in to make a presentation to Triumph Gulf Coast and helped seal the deal. Finally, he reminded everyone that Okaloosa County’s millage rate was still second lowest in the state, and that our per capita annual tax burden (from all taxes) is $277 per resident—the lowest in the state. While very low taxes can be a double-edge sword, he assured attendees that county officials were working hard to deliver the best services while staying within the county’s means, and offered up as an example the Destin-Fort Walton Beach airport, which is the fastest growing one in the nation!

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County Judge Angela Mason

Judge Angela MasonJudge Angela Mason is the newest Okaloosa County Judge (appointed last year), and she had lots of good news about how the judicial system is serving county residents. She is especially excited about all the programs that are getting the local judicial system more involved in the community. Judge Mason noted that the county courts have a unique opportunity to help folks work through the system and solve problems by helping people get back to work and invest in our community.

She plugged the “Driver’s License Clinic” that restores individual licenses, helping folks get back to work and on their feet financially, which is a net plus for the county as a whole. She also cited the Veterans’ Stand-down that helps our local veterans as another good investment, and announced plans for a “homeless stand-down” in the future. Other community-related programs include greater involvement with local schools, including NWFSC and Liza Jackson Prep. Students make field trips to court, take tours of county facilities and hear from prisoners and forensic scientists to help them understand the judicial system, so they can navigate it and promote practical solutions to issues facing the county.

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Okaloosa County School District Vice Chair Tim Bryant

School Board Vice Chair Tim BryantTim Bryant told attendees that work brought him to Okaloosa County, and he later turned down a job transfer so his family could stay here. He also had lots of good news about our school district, which is one of only three in the state with continuous “A” ratings, because we have great schools and teachers. He noted that as one of two board members without a background in education, his time on the board has been “eye opening.” The biggest issue facing the district is its aging infrastructure, and the fact that we have no local option sales tax to augment district funds means we are in trouble. A plan to add a sales tax referendum to the local ballot to fund school district infrastructure requirements was tabled in 2018 as a result of the child abuse scandal that rocked the district at that time.

Mr. Bryant said backing from the entire school board and the superintendent would be required to make another half-cent sales tax referendum a reality in 2020. Given that the state legislature is doing its best to hobble local governments via unfunded mandates and limits on local referendums to increase taxes, any future referendum would need lots of grassroots support from citizens as well. Another complication Okaloosa County faces (along with six other Florida counties) is that the federal government—which does not pay property tax—owns the majority of property here, and property tax is the source of school district funding. The School Board is already working on next year’s budget, and the county recently received  an increase in fun ding from Tallahassee. He noted that the increase was not enough, but was still welcome as the board works within its means to provide the best results for our students.

Mr. Bryant cited several bright spots. School safety is another big priority, and $4M will be invested in various safety programs/measures to protect our students. He emphasized the great working  relationship the school district has with OCSO and Sheriff Ashley, which has helped tremendously in these efforts. Additionally, career technology programs are thriving and providing more options for our students, since everyone isn’t college material. The county offers many certification programs that lead to good careers, and our students are taking advantage of them. On the minus side, we are already in dire need of teachers and it’s getting harder to recruit them. On the plus side, our teacher retention rate is good.

Finally, he noted that the rewards of serving on the school board are gratifying, and invited attendees to check social media for constant updates on what’s happening in the school district. The board intends to keep moving forward in its efforts to ensure our kids are safe, educated and loved.

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Mr. Windes and Judge Mason noted that the county’s mental health diversion program now had some money behind it, which would be used to get help for the offenders and to reduce the jail population. County courts cannot currently refer mental health felons to the state hospital, so we really need a local facility to screen offenders for mental health issues and offer treatment alternatives to incarceration. Carolyn Ketchel and former Judge Patt Maney are championing this initiative.

When asked why there are no sidewalks in the Kenwood subdivision (which is trying to get Fort Walton Beach to annex it so they can get some sidewalks), Commissioner Windes noted that money from the surtax approved last year was already building sidewalks in Destin. He suggested that could provide an easy fix for Kenwood, and urged residents to ask their Commissioner to propose just that.

When asked about plans for the old school district building on Lowery Place (which cannot be used due to air quality issues), Mr. Bryant wondered why we would keep something we aren’t going to use. From a business perspective, his preference would be to sell the property (which many developers covet), and use the proceeds elsewhere on higher priorities. He emphasized that’s just his opinion, and there’s no solid plan yet. He did suggest that rather than “put a band aid” on the existing problem, funds instead be allocated to update the school district’s Niceville building to accommodate the displaced staff permanently, which would be a solid investment for the future.

Mr. Bryant declined to say whether he favored an appointed versus an elected Superintendent of Schools. There are pros and cons, but his preference is to let voters decide via referendum.

When asked about the availability of apprentice programs for local students, Mr. Bryant said the board had just workshopped it and will vote soon to create internships at FWB Medical Center among other organizations.  He would also like to make Crestview the tech school for north county. Mike Anderson pointed out there is currently funding available for paid internships for at risk kids, and an expansion of that program would be another great investment that would augment the special tech programs already available at each local HS.

Commissioner Windes responded to a question about the county’s recycling and composting programs by point out that since China stopped purchasing recycled waste, the programs so not make money and thus are not sustainable. However, we really can’t afford not to try and make it work. When informed about new recycling technology, he vowed to call Waste Management and inquire, since we need to keep the program going.

An attendee asked what residents and organizations can do to help the schools? Mr. Bryant urged everyone to get the word out and get community people involved! Have folks address the board in person about their concerns. Actively participate! There must be grassroots support that demands change!

The Midbay Bridge Authority recently announced that 20% of tolls were going uncollected. Is it time for new leadership in the Midbay Bridge Authority? Commissioner Windes said that the note covering the bridge has ballooned in size, especially since the Spence Pkwy, with more than half of revenue being used to service debt. As he drily noted, “there’s room for improvement.” Mr. Bryant added that many employers do not reimburse toll expenses, so scores of local workers are paying just to get to and from work. Even with a sun pass the tolls take a big toll out of local paychecks.

A newcomer to the state and county asked what was up with the State Legislature either undoing the results of voter referendums (e.g., restoration of felon rights) or else trying to make it harder for voter initiatives to even get off the ground? This seemed to be a clear case of legislators trying to thwart the will of the electorate. Local officials basically had no answer for this, as they already contend with the legislature complicating the job of local government (see remarks above about unfunded mandates and limits on local tax increase referenda).

Finally, panelists were asked how arming teachers could be justified. Commissioner Windes reminded everyone that $4M was being invested in school safety, and that the possibility of arming teachers was just one tiny component of those measures. Mr. Bryant noted that the program was completely voluntary, and that teachers would have to undergo 140 of training before being permitted to carry a weapon in school. A deputy noted that the training itself would likely have a winnowing effect on volunteers, since it would give them a good idea of what they might be in for. Mr. Bryant said schools that were deemed high risk were being targeted by the safety programs, but declined to provide specific details so as not to compromise security. In his opinion, the knowledge that armed teachers might be on the premises would serve as a deterrent to potential criminals.

Thanks so much to our panelists and to everyone who attended the 2019 State of the County Report!

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