Florida Association of Counties pushes ‘softly’ to get Sarasota County to sign onto oil spill fund consortium

The Deepwater Horizon fire / VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Representatives from the Florida Association of Counties updated the Sarasota County Commission Sept. 12 on its work to unify the 23 gulf counties affected by the 2010 BP oil spill into a consortium that could control Florida’s share of the projected $5 billion to $20 billion that BP will be fined by the federal government.

The affected counties will vote on whether to form the coalition during an Association gathering in St. Pete next week; assuming the counties agree, a “draft resolution” written by the Association would then be presented to the various county boards for ratification. Doug Darling, the chief of staff of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection during the oil spill and now a consultant with the Association of Counties, said the Association is hoping the consortium is “up and running by Oct. 1,” which would give the group three months to develop a strategy for how best to allocate the BP money.

That money is coming to Florida through the RESTORE Act, legislation passed by Congress that directs the pending BP fines to the five gulf states affected by the Deepwater Horizon spill, the worst environmental disaster in American history.

Former Association Legislative Director John Wayne Smith was also on hand Wednesday at the commission meeting, “pushing softly” for the county to join the consortium and urging local governments to act quickly because of looming federal deadlines. He said that while other states already have departments dedicated to planning RESTORE funding, there is a “lack of leadership” on the issue in Tallahassee. “With no one grabbing the reins,” Smith said, “we think this is an opportunity for counties.”

Once the consortium is created, Darling said, the group could then lay out guidelines for how best to use the BP money, focusing on any number of regional priorities.

County Commissioner Jon Thaxton asked the only question during the presentation, about whether already existing regional estuary programs might benefit from the consortium. Darling said such efforts were a good example of how the counties might band together on future projects.

The Sarasota News Leader will know more about Sarasota County’s role in the consortium after next week’s Association of Counties meeting. If all goes according to plan, the County Commission will be considering a resolution to sign onto the consortium before the end of the month.

One side note: Thaxton got in a good jab at federal environmental policymakers, when he contradicted one of Darling’s statements. Darling had said that “no one ever envisioned” an offshore disaster like the BP spill.

“That is completely untrue,” Thaxton retorted, citing predictions of a disaster like the Deepwater Horizon one that were ignored by the federal government.