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The Star - Southerland: RESTORE Funds a Rare Opportunity

News Article

Location: Apalachicola, FL

By Tim Croft

Think not just good, but great.

That is what Congressman Steve Southerland, R-Panama City, urged commissioners from Gulf, Franklin and Wakulla counties during an informational meeting Thursday on the RESTORE Act.

Southerland urged commissioners to be broad-based and transparent and to be cohesive, not only in spending the billions in BP fine money potentially coming to eight counties along the Northwest Florida coast, but also in rebuffing attempts by the executive branch to change the dynamics of how those fines will be collected.

Southerland spoke to commissioners from the three counties about what was contained in the bill passed with bipartisan support in the both houses of Congress that aims, Southerland said, to "restore" states impacted environmentally and economically by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill.

The bill is unique in Florida in that 75 percent of the largest pot of fine dollars, so-called "Pot One," which will account for 35 percent of total fines paid, will be sent directly to the eight impacted counties in Northwest Florida between Escambia and Wakulla.

The final decisions on how those funds will be spent will be made by each county's board of county commissioners.

"I urge you to make decisions not for you, not for your children, but for your grandchildren," Southerland said. "Do the right thing. Come together as communities. Focus on single, major goals. Don't just think good; think great. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Southerland also urged every county to establish a "broad-based" advisory committee to work through ideas and goals and provide input. Gulf County has established such a committee, which is meeting weekly, but Franklin County has yet to establish one.

The city of Apalachicola is pressing other municipalities to join in a resolution urging more input from the cities in decisions on projects that impact them.

Southerland said the input from all stakeholders, particularly the public, was crucial, not just for local success of projects but also when the Department of Treasury assesses projects under criteria that have yet to be established.

The criteria must be established within 180 days of the signing of the RESTORE Act, Dec. 31.

Under the process, once a proposal is forwarded to Treasury, approved and a check cut, the county must report to Congress in 12 months on how that money was spent and whether it was spent for the purpose intended.

"Why would county commissioners take all the liability themselves?" Southerland said. "Commissioners should spread the risk. The public should be involved. You must make sure everyone has input."

Southerland said counties must join together to rebuff attempts by Department of Justice to assess BP fines -- estimated, Southerland said, to be between $5-$20 billion and which should be assessed by a federal judge sometime in 2013 -- under the National Resources Damage Assessment instead of under the Clean Water Act, which would render moot the provisions of the RESTORE Act.

All funds -- the RESTORE Act divides the fine money between environmental and economic restoration -- would thereby be paid for environmental impacts; no money would be earmarked for economic recovery from the spill, Southerland said.

Southerland said the president signed the bill in June. Southerland considered any attempt to undermine it unconstitutional.

"I can't see (the president) arguing a bill that has his name on it," Southerland said.

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