Posted on January 11, 2023
Weeks after approving $5 million in emergency spending for sand-dumping along its critically eroded shore, the Flagler County Commission today approved an additional $3.6 million, with the possibility of yet another $3.8 million ahead, for a total of $12.4 million in emergency-sand projects so far.
The county expects a total of $14 million in emergency sand between money already appropriated or pledged, and money it expects to get in coming weeks from state and federal sources. The county has applied for $18 million on top of that from the Federal Emergency Management Administration, but the fate of that application is uncertain for now.
The sands with approved money will be used to rebuild only six miles of Flagler County’s dune-less 18-mile shoreline (11.4 miles of which in unincorporated Flagler County). The millions of dollars will rebuild the same kind of narrow, emergency dunes that the county rebuilt in the aftermath of Hurricanes Matthew and Irma, in 2018–sands that, by last year, had entirely washed away. The county had secured some $20 million in state dollars for that, $20 million that literally washed away. For almost three years, however, the sacrificial dunes did their job, keeping the mainland from being impacted.
This round of sand would do the same, with the understanding that it is no less of a temporary measure than the previous round.
“Everything we do here is only six cubic yards, we are doing another band-aid project, we are not doing resilient, long-term project,” County Engineer Faith al-Khatib said this morning, fully aware of the temporary nature of the work in an environment where massive erosion from rising seas is now routine, even after common storms and high tides. There will be a plan for bigger, more durable dunes, al-Khatib said. “When we get to that point,” she told county commissioners, “we’ll come up with a plan to you and one day we have to match some of that funding.”
Al-Khatib’s message to county commissioners was clear, though so far the commission has not been willing to hear it without at least some wax in its ears: to get beyond the band-aid approach, it’ll likely cost millions in local dollars. On the other hand, al-Khatib herself is to blame for the commission’s resistance to ponying up local dollars: al-Khatib and her team have been so successful at securing state and federal dollars that she’s gotten the commission used to the gravy train.
Al-Khatib was championing her team for that very reason even today. “The Flagler County Engineering Department, they brought at least $12 million for additional emergency sand,” the county’s chief engineer said this morning, naming the various members of the county department who secured the money–with more coming, she said.
What she did not say is that the money secured so far is a drop in the bucket of what’s needed in the long run.
The North Flagler County Dune Restoration Project approved today begins south of Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, running 8,350 feet south to the south of MalaCompra Park. It will consist of dunes built from 49,500 Cubic yards of trucked-in sand (as opposed to sand dredged offshore), making them on the thinner side of dunes, at 6 cubic yards per foot. In comparison, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would use at least 17.5 cubic yards per foot on its eventual project south of the Flagler Beach pier. That project has been hung up for three years, however.
“Really commissioners, I need your help to award this project to move forward,” al-Khatib pleaded with county commissioners this morning, referring to dune-rebuilding at the north end of the county.
The county received five bids for that one. The award went to Eastman Aggregate Enterprises, which bid at $44.39 per ton of sand, and 32 cents per square foot of vegetation it would plant. It projects planting 242,000 square feet.
The bid includes an alternative, or an addition, that would allow the county to extend the dune rebuilding north of the project area, and through Washington Oaks Garden State Park. That addition is at the request of the state Department of Environmental Protection, which would fund the extension as early as this month, with an additional $3.8 million, without a local match.
The bid will also allow the county to use the sand at what it calls “undefined alternate location(s),” on a per-ton basis.
“When we started working on this two years ago after Dorian, the cost estimate for this project was $2.7 million,” with the federal government assuming 75 percent of that. The remaining 25 percent responsibility had to be split between Flagler County and the state. The state has since enabled a doubling of the funds on the way, to “more than $7 million,” al-Khatib said. But that also meant raising the local match.
The $3.6 million project approved today will be paid for with state and federal funds, and a local match of $457,000. Even that local match may be reimbursed by the Department of Environmental Protection, al-Khatib said, giving that likelihood “99 percent” certainty. The county anticipates receiving $826,868 from the Federal Emergency Management Administration in reimbursements for damage sustained after Hurricane Dorian.
There was a technical, internal hitch in all this, because a lot of that money was being channeled through funds that are under the purview of the Tourist Development Council. The TDC is a county advisory board, overseeing the county’s tourism bureau–a county department. So basically the TDC works for the county. Still: any budgetary impacts to TDC funds must first be approved (or at least recommended) by the TDC board.
The TDC board used to meet every months until former County Administrator Jerry Cameron changed its bylaws, reducing the meetings to a quarterly schedule. That has pleased some board members and the county administration but it also creates procedural problems. The one the county faced today is one of them. The county needs to tap into a TDC fund for a $2 million loan, for cash-flow purposes, to get the dunes project going. And while the TDC has previously approved using money from its funds for local matches, it had not done so for an additional $118,000. The TDC is not meeting again until Jan. 18.
Today, al-Khatib was asking the County Commission to approve both, and only subsequently get TDC approval. “I’m sorry, it’s last-minute information,” al-Khatib said.
That gave some commissioners like Andy Dance heartburn, and Commissioner Dave Sullivan, who chairs the TDC, was worried that the TDC would “say no.” But the TDC’s vote is not binding: the county commission has overridden “no” votes by the council before and could do so again. As Commissioner Donald O’Brien reminded his colleagues, “the TDC doesn’t have statutory authority to bind us. I mean, that’s our still our responsibility.”
Commissioners were nevertheless not sure about the legality of jumping the gun. “I’ve been in the organization 12 years and I know that we’ve never put the cart before the horse,” Amy Lukasik, the tourism director, said, “but but I also understand these are time sensitive items.” (Lukasik, who was not always a happy camper during those times, may have blocked out procedural steps in previous year that contradict her history: there were times, when Craig Coffey was the county administrator, when the county administration and the commission ran roughshod over TDC procedures, going through the required steps of presenting to the TDC, only to then change the numbers when before the commission.)
Dance was uncomfortable with the process–or lack of it. He had no idea to what extent TDC funds were getting depleted with a $2 million loan, or with the $118,000 match that would come out of the TDC’s beach restoration fund. He didn’t have an issue with the loan, or the goal of the loan. But he wanted the process more clearly delineated for both the commission and the council. “We don’t have a process. We need a process,” Dance said.
In the end, County Administrator Heidi Petito proposed a workaround the commission approved. The initial $2 million loan will be drawn form the county’s own general fund reserves, then, after the TDC’s Jan. 18 meeting, reimbursed out of TDC funds. But the $118,000 in local match would be drawn out of the TDC funds now, and approved subsequently. The county will schedule a special meeting on Jan. 18 to take account of the TDC’s moves.
All of that does not impact the dunes-rebuilding project as far as the public is concerned. But it does illustrate to what extent the county could strap itself for cash when dealing with such large projects, in addition to all of its other responsibilities–and when its procedural schedules are out of whack.
John Brower, the county’s finance director, cautioned the commission on that score: “The bigger picture though over the course next year or even a few months,” he said, “we’ll be coming back for millions of dollars to cash flow projects.”