Gulf Coast restoration projects moving forward
Courtesy of the Department of Environmental Protection
On Nov. 19, Gov. Rick Scott announced five proposals for 20 projects totaling $77 million that were submitted to the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council for consideration under the Council-Selected Restoration Component portion of funding through the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast Act of 2012 (RESTORE Act).
Scott said, “We’re committed to protecting and restoring Florida’s estuaries, and these $77 million in projects would significantly bolster our efforts to protect and restore our natural treasures. Our Department of Environmental Protection has worked closely with local leaders and environmental stakeholders to identify the projects that will best benefit our critical ecosystems. Through state funding we’ve made major investments in the Everglades and the Keys, and with these dollars we’ll make similar investments in North Florida’s estuaries and continue to make Florida’s environment a priority.”
These proposals address high priority restoration needs in 10 major watersheds from Perdido Bay to Tampa Bay. They also represent the feedback received from numerous meetings with stakeholders and citizens. Additionally, the proposals represent projects from the list of over 1,200 submissions to the Department of Environmental Protections’ online portal.
• The Pensacola Bay Watershed Proposal encompasses two living-shoreline projects, a wastewater reuse project, a stormwater and wastewater improvement project and a contaminated sediment removal planning project. These projects will collectively improve Pensacola and East Bays, a portion of the Santa Rosa Sound, as well as Bayou Chico. The funding amount for this proposal totals $15.9 million.
• The Apalachicola Bay Watershed Proposal includes three major projects that would improve fresh water flows to the hydrologically impacted bay. Also, an expansion of a Natural Resource Damage Assessment oyster population rebuilding project, a marsh and oyster reef project, and an agricultural pollution reduction project will help to restore the bay and assist affected oystermen. The funding amount for this proposal totals $26.1 million.
• The Suwannee River Watershed Proposal would provide $12.1 million in funds to acquire conservation easements in the Florida Forever Lower Suwannee River and Gulf Less-than-Fee Program and to implement an oyster-restoration project near Cedar Key, as well as an agriculture pollution reduction project. These projects will restore and protect water quality and habitats that sustain the local communities whose economies depend on these vital resources.
• The Tampa Bay Watershed Proposal includes $6.9 million in funding for five projects, three of which are shovel-ready stormwater projects that would improve water quality and habitat within this watershed. Also included in this proposal are Manatee County’s Robinson Preserve restoration and Alafia Bank Bird Sanctuary living shoreline installations, which are two highly ranked projects identified in the Southwest Florida Regional Ecosystem Restoration Plan.
• The last proposal, Northwest Florida Estuaries and Watersheds Proposal, is intended to complete the current watershed planning efforts in the Panhandle and includes funding for design, permitting, implementation and monitoring for high priority water quality and habitat restoration projects that will be identified through these planning efforts. The funding amount for this proposal totals $16.8 million.
The five proposals, involving approximately 20 specific projects, total more than $77 million in requested funding. Information may be found about each proposal at www.deepwaterhorizonflorida.com.
Many experts and politicians highlight the environmental benefits of these projects.
“Water quality is a top priority in Florida, and the projects in the submitted proposals significantly reflect that priority. We hope to see the projects approved and implemented in the near future,” said Secretary Herschel T. Vinyard Jr. of the Department of Environmental Protection. “The proposals submitted are just one example of Governor Scott’s commitment to the environment.”
“These proposals show that Governor Scott and the state of Florida are committed to improving water quality, restoring critical habitats and cleaning up our shorelines,” said Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam. “From Apalachicola Bay to Central Florida springs to coastal estuaries, these projects will make a real difference across the state.”
“Protecting Florida’s water continues to be my top priority while serving in the Florida Senate,” said Senator Charles S. Dean (R-Inverness). “The projects Governor Scott submitted to the RESTORE Council under the Suwannee River Watershed proposal would help protect Florida’s natural resources for future generations.”
“Thanks to the Governor’s leadership this group of Florida proposals advances a vision for restoring some of our most important Gulf Coast estuaries and watersheds,” said Executive Director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Nick Wiley. “These RESTORE projects would revitalize key habitat for fish and wildlife and help support the economies of coastal communities that are so closely tied to these resources.”
“Tampa Bay is a critical lifeline to the health of the Gulf of Mexico and the projects included within the proposals submitted by Governor Scott reflect the much needed restoration and water quality improvement for Tampa Bay,” said Holly Greening, executive director of Tampa Bay National Estuary Program.
“The Suwannee River watershed is one of the largest watersheds affecting the Gulf of Mexico,” said Ann B. Shortelle, Ph.D. executive director of the Suwannee River Water Management District. “The projects included in Governor Scott’s submitted proposal would address many water quality and habitat issues in the Suwannee River watershed.”
“Water is a necessary part of our lives and ensuring the quality of Florida’s water and associated natural resources is a top priority of the state and our District,” said Robert Beltran, executive director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District. “We are pleased to see that priority reflected in Governor Scott’s proposals for RESTORE Act funding.”
Local officials praised the proposals as meaningful and smart solutions to the problems caused by the oil spill.
“Both the Pensacola Bay and the Northwest Florida Estuaries and Watersheds proposals are great news for the Panhandle,” said Representative Doug Broxson. “I want to thank Governor Scott for his continued commitment to restoring the Gulf Coast of Florida following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.”
“Pensacola Bay is one of Florida’s most important bays and I am grateful to Gov. Scott, DEP Secretary Vinyard and Nick Wiley of FWC for their hard work in recognizing that restoring this bay is top priority for the state of Florida,” said City of Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward.
“We are so pleased to see three proposals including planning and implementation for Panhandle estuaries and watersheds were submitted by Gov. Scott to the Council,” said Temperance Morgan, executive director for The Nature Conservancy. “These proposals would extend the good work being done by TNC and lay the foundation for a sophisticated estuary program for the Panhandle.”
“Gov. Scott’s submitted proposals complement the work already being implemented in the Panhandle watersheds to preserve water quality and quantity,” said Executive Director of the Northwest Florida Water Management District Jon Steverson. “We are hopeful the projects will be approved and more can be done to protect Northwest Florida’s water resources.”
“The Gulf Consortium is tasked with creating the State Expenditure Plan for the Spill Impact Component of the RESTORE Act funds and working with Governor Scott is an important step to gaining successful projects for the state of Florida,” said Mike Sole, Gov. Scott’s appointee to the Gulf Consortium. “Florida’s proposals submitted to the Council focus on restoring Florida’s natural resources and as a member of the Gulf Consortium, I am thankful to Governor Scott for his continued dedication to restoring the Gulf Coast.”
“Audubon Florida is supportive of the five proposals submitted for consideration by the Council,” said Eric Draper, executive director for Audubon Florida. “There are many projects within the proposals that would continue Governor Scott’s work to conserve the vital habitats in our state.”
“The Gulf Consortium is fully supportive of the proposals submitted by Governor Scott,” said President of the Florida Association of Counties, Chairman of the Gulf Consortium and Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson. “Also, local governments across the Florida Gulf Coast have greatly enjoyed the working relationship with Governor Scott and state agencies to plan, propose, and initiate restoration of our environmental assets.”
“The after affects of the BP oil spill are still felt in many communities and by many businesses in coastal Northwest Florida,” said Senator Don Gaetz. “The grant funding announced today is another step in rebuilding and strengthening our environment and our economy. I’m grateful to Governor Scott and Secretary Vinyard for working closely with local leaders on these funding decisions.”
The RESTORE Act allocates 80 percent of the Clean Water Act administrative and civil penalties resulting from the Deepwater Horizon incident to the Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund. To date, Transocean is the only responsible party to settle its civil liability and a portion of those funds are now available. The Council-Selected Restoration Component, commonly known as Bucket 2, equates to 30 percent of available funds and is managed by the council. For this first round, the total available for projects is roughly $150 to $180 million to be shared among 11 council members.
Once the council staff receives all member proposals they will be reviewed for eligibility and posted online. The council members will then work to create a draft Funded Priorities List, which will be available in the Spring/Summer of 2015 for public review and comment.
The state of Florida will compete for Bucket 2 funding with the other states and federal agencies represented on the council. The proposals must align with the Council’s Comprehensive Plan, which was published in August 2013. The Department of Environmental Protection and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have been working diligently to ensure Florida’s Bucket 2 proposals align with the council’s goals, have wide support and significantly contribute to the overall health of the Gulf of Mexico.
RESTORE Act funding is just a small portion of the overall environmental restoration work that is being implemented in the state of Florida to compensate the public for injuries caused by the Deepwater Horizon spill.
To date there has been nearly $175 million in approved projects and programs across Florida’s Gulf Coast communities through other funding sources, such as Natural Resource Damage Assessment early restoration and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund. These projects range from living shorelines, land acquisitions, boat ramps, coastal conservancy and enhanced recreational use. Project selection processes among these multiple funding sources are coordinated to ensure projects that are chosen are complementary and successful for our treasured Gulf Coast.
These projects come on the heels of Florida securing a record level of funding for important environmental projects through the state budget. This year, Governor Scott approved more than $300 million for projects to improve water quality in south Florida and the Florida Keys. This investment will be used for critical projects for families and businesses that rely on these natural treasures, mitigate impacts of Lake Okeechobee’s discharges on our estuaries and divert more fresh water south to help restore the Everglades.
Chief Justice Puts Spotlight on Civil Legal Needs
By JIM TURNER
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga signed an administrative order Monday creating a 27-member commission to determine how civil legal needs can be met for low- and moderate-income Floridians.
One of the main tasks of the new Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice will be to figure out how to provide additional funding for civil legal aid, something Gov. Rich Scott has vetoed the past four years.
Labarga said the commission will be asked to consider the potential of establishing public-private partnerships with the business community. He added that the commission isn’t expected to ask for “a lot of money” from legislators.
“It is our hope that they come up with solutions that combine all these efforts and various ways to do it,” Labarga said. “My intention, our intention, is to lock up all these smart people in a room, let them knock it around and see what they come up with.”
Gregory Coleman, president of The Florida Bar and a member of the commission, said he expects the members will work to educate top business leaders of the state on the need to expand funding for the civil programs.
The commission includes John Attaway, the general counsel for Publix Super Markets, and Jeffrey Craigmile, the chief counsel for Walt Disney Company
Labarga’s action follows similar efforts in about 30 other states.
The commission is to meet quarterly, with the first meeting expected to be held in Tallahassee after the New Year.
Also among those named to the commission are Labarga; Attorney General Pam Bondi; state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater; state Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island; and State University System Chancellor Marshall M. Criser III.
Labarga announced his intention to make the courts more accessible to all Floridians in June when he was sworn in as the state’s 56th chief justice.
Scott did not attend Labarga’s swearing-in, which came less than a month after the governor vetoed $2 million that lawmakers had earmarked for legal services for the poor.
The veto followed similar vetoes of $1 million in 2011 and $2 million in each of the following two years for what the budget describes as “civil legal assistance.”
Legal-aid lawyers handle tens of thousands of cases a year, with many of the cases dealing with family issues, such as divorce or child custody, or housing issues, such as foreclosures.
Coleman told reporters during the signing ceremony held in the Supreme Court that expanding access to the courts wouldn’t result in more people filing lawsuits.
“I don’t see it as expanding litigation at all, I see it as streamlining and making the courts more efficient,” Coleman said.
Emerson Thompson, Jr., president of The Florida Bar Foundation and a member of the commission, added, “My concern is not more litigation, it’s simply fair litigation with the cases we have.”
Labarga said programs that provide legal assistance have seen a reduction in funding in recent years, while self-representation in civil cases has grown.
“Many working-class Floridians find themselves in the predicament of earning too much to qualify for legal aid, but not enough to afford to hire a lawyer,” Labarga said. “I’m talking about hard-working families trying to raise a family on $50,000 or so. These are your school teachers, firefighters, police officers, plumbers.”
Scott’s veto this year came as former Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero and attorneys for the poor pushed an effort to increase Florida Bar dues by up to $100 to help fund legal-service groups across the state.
The state Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments Dec. 2 on raising a $265 cap on the Bar’s annual membership fees. The Florida Bar has come out strongly against the proposal, arguing that the legal system needs a longer-term solution to pay for services provided to the poor.
Coleman said Florida lawyers are already contributing significant time and money to legal aid. Last year Bar members reported 1.7 million hours of pro bono work and about $4.8 million in contributions to legal services organizations, Coleman said.
Florida Children’s Cabinet Sets New Course
By MARGIE MENZEL
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
Members of the Florida Children and Youth Cabinet on Tuesday, Nov. 18 said they wanted to re-establish the cabinet as a “bully pulpit” for children, with better coordination among the state agencies that serve kids and more political backing from Gov. Rick Scott.
The discussion came as members of the cabinet reviewed a strategic plan — now 7 years old — and set a new course for improving the lives of the youngest state residents.
Members agreed to renew their mission of improving “the self-sufficiency, safety, economic stability, health and quality of life of all children and youth in Florida.”
“We know we’re not there,” said Judy Schaechter, interim chairwoman of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Miami and a founding member of the cabinet. “We’ve got to get there.”
The Children and Youth Cabinet was established by the Legislature in 2007 and has been housed in the governor’s office ever since. It was intended to break down the so-called “silos” among state agencies — separate missions that often keep different parts of state government from working efficiently and effectively together.
A lack of coordination is especially problematic when it comes to children who are served by multiple state agencies, said Mike Carroll, interim secretary of the Department of Children and Families.
“You’ve got to understand how all these services are interconnected,” Carroll said. “We should be taking the blinders off.”
But without a way to propose legislation or a budget to achieve their goals, some members of the panel had grown frustrated.
“This is about the very future of Florida and our country, and I would like more evidence that what we might contribute would actually lead to significant progress for the children of Florida,” said David Lawrence, chairman of the Children’s Movement of Florida and another founding member of the cabinet.
The cabinet includes the secretaries of the Department of Children and Families, the Department of Juvenile Justice, the Department of Education and the Agency for Health Care Administration, along with the surgeon general, who heads the Department of Health, and the directors of the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, the Office of Early Learning, the statewide Guardian ad Litem Office and the Office of Child Abuse Prevention.
It also includes appointees of the governor, attorney general, chief financial officer, Florida Supreme Court and both chambers of the Legislature.
Chairwoman Wansley Walters, former secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice, said the cabinet had made some significant achievements, such as promoting awareness of human trafficking and bullying.
But the panelists agreed that they needed to find a way to pool their resources — both human and financial
“I think more support from the governor’s office and giving us that underpinning to move forward is very important,” said Barbara Palmer, director of the Agency for Persons with Disabilities. “But whether it’s legislation, interagency agreement — whatever it is that we can now share resources, I think, is very, very critical. Or we’re not going to be able to move anything forward.”
Attorney Steve Uhlfelder, a Scott appointee, suggested the cabinet develop several legislative priorities that Walters, as chairwoman, would propose to the governor.
“If we went to the Legislature without the support of the governor, it wouldn’t mean anything,” Uhlfelder said.
“The right place to start is the governor,” Lawrence agreed.
But a number of the panelists, including Lawrence, noted that they were not criticizing Scott.
“The governor’s made more progress on early childhood (education) this past session than has been made in 10 years,” Lawrence said. “I respect the governor fully. He does care about children. We still have a cabinet that is foundering.”
He pointed to the Healthy Start initiative, begun under the late Gov. Lawton Chiles in response to high infant mortality rates. “I want this cabinet to stand for something, to get something done,” Lawrence concluded.
Uhlfelder urged the panel to boost the state’s early investment in children, so as to prevent potential problems from becoming acute as the children age. He also proposed that the group move quickly, since the budget process for the next fiscal year is already underway.
“We can invest in them now or pay for them later,” agreed Carroll, who urged the group to identify all the agencies’ funding sources and coordinate them so as to make the best use of dollars. “The money has to follow the kids and their needs.”
By the end of the five-hour meeting, the cabinet members were upbeat.
“This is a passionate and unruly group,” Walters said. “There are some things we need to put in place to position ourselves for the next step. I am so optimistic that we are going to redefine and reinvent ourselves, because the last thing I ever want this group to hear is that we don’t do anything.”
Florida Corrections Chief Stepping Down
By DARA KAM
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
Gov. Rick Scott’s corrections chief, Mike Crews, announced Monday he is stepping down from the agency grappling with reports of abuse by prison guards, allegations of retaliation against whistleblowers and a multimillion-dollar deficit.
Crews did not immediately return a telephone call, but Department of Corrections spokeswoman Jessica Cary confirmed the secretary made his resignation public within the agency Monday morning.
Crews, whose resignation has been the subject of rumors for months, is the first agency head to step down since Scott’s re-election Nov. 4.
Crews, 53, was the third Department of Corrections secretary appointed during Scott’s first term in office.
Crews launched a crusade to clean up the corrections agency this summer after reports of inmate deaths and abuse at the hands of prison guards. Crews, who began his career as a prison guard, fired dozens of prison workers, initiated new standards for conduct and asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, where he spent nearly three decades before becoming the corrections agency’s deputy secretary in 2012, to investigate more than unresolved 100 inmate deaths.
Black leaders are asking the U.S. Department of Justice to expand an investigation into wrongdoing at several Florida prisons.
And a group of corrections investigators who work for Scott’s inspector general filed a lawsuit against Crews, Scott and others earlier this year, alleging they were retaliated against for exposing the death of an inmate that opened a floodgate of questions about inmate abuse.
Scott’s first prison chief, Ed Buss, was forced to step down after less than a year on the job after being at odds with the governor’s office over contracts and a massive privatization attempt that the Legislature failed to endorse.
Buss was replaced by Ken Tucker, a longtime Florida Department of Law Enforcement official and one of Crews’s mentors. Tucker stepped down two years ago as part of a longtime plan to participate in the state’s retirement program.
In December 2012, Crews took over an agency with a $2 billion budget that was $120 million in debt and was tied up in a court battle over privatization of inmate health services. Crews initiated a variety of cost-cutting measures, including having inmates sew their own clothes, make their own laundry soap and wash dishes by hand. Crews said he hoped to whittle the deficit down to $15 million this year.
But Crews’ major headaches came this summer after the Miami Herald reported that Darren Rainey, a mentally ill inmate at Dade Correctional Institution, died after guards allegedly forced him to shower in scalding hot water as punishment two years ago. Rainey’s death prompted Crews to fire the warden at the prison and clean house at other institutions where inmates have died under questionable circumstances.
The FBI is reportedly scrutinizing Suwannee Correctional Institution, where an inmate-led riot injured five prison guards in October. The April 2 death of inmate Shawn Gooden at the facility is one of more than 100 inmate deaths being investigated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
In the lawsuit filed by the group of investigators, the whistleblowers claim they started a probe into allegations of prison guard misconduct at Franklin Correctional Institution in 2013. That investigation revealed that an earlier probe into the 2010 death of inmate Randall Jordan-Aparo, who died in solitary confinement after being repeatedly gassed with noxious chemicals, “was false and misleading.” Several of the guards involved in Jordan-Aparo’s death have since been fired.
Crews has also wrestled with widespread gang activity aided by corrupt guards.
As an example, two former prison sergeants are awaiting trial after being accused of ordering an inmate to be killed last fall to protect the guards’ role as kingpins of an institution-wide gang operation at Taylor Correctional Institution in North Florida.
For more than a year, at least five guards allegedly helped the “Bloods,” “Folk” and “MPR” gangs by smuggling drugs, cell phones and cigarettes into the prison in exchange for thousands of dollars in payments, according to probable-cause affidavits.
Cell phones, which can sell for up to $600 inside prisons, are a problem in correctional systems throughout the country, Crews told The News Service of Florida last month.
“You have individuals who say, ‘If I bring in 10 of those, I’m probably sitting on $5,000 or $6,000.’ Some people can’t turn down that temptation,” he said. “Yeah, we have gangs in prisons just like are out on the street right now. It is a constant battle to make sure we keep monitoring those and try to minimize their effectiveness inside the institution, and outside the institution, honestly.”
Crews also struggled to change the culture of the prison system, which oversees more than 100,000 inmates, and which is the best — or only — job in many rural counties, especially in North Florida, where the institutions are located. In some areas, guards are third-generation employees of the corrections department whose family members and neighbors also work at the prisons. Crews tried to convince prison staff to report wrongdoing, but fears of retaliation and shunning are common in the system.
Crews assured workers that he would protect them if they expose abuse or corruption.
“There’s no doubt there are still people who work in this agency that are fearful of coming forward for doing the right thing. There’s no doubt in my mind about that. We didn’t get into the position that we’re in today overnight. We’re not going to get out of it overnight. This takes time. And when you’re trying to change a culture you have to do it from the top down and the bottom up,” he said in an October interview.
In September, Crews threatened to stop payments to Missouri-based Corizon, which won a five-year, $1.2 billion contract to provide health care to the majority of the state’s prisoners. Crews accused Corizon of failing to follow through after audits revealed shortcomings in multiple areas, including medical care, nursing and administration.