CHIPLEY - Washington County could soon have fewer restrictions on the sale of alcohol and fewer county voting precincts.

The Board of Commissioners is eyeing the changes, which are expected to be approved in upcoming board meetings.

The long-discussed changes to the county's existing alcohol ordinance made progress when Attorney Jeff Goodman presented commissioners with a draft of the proposed alcohol ordinance changes in a workshop Wednesday.

The current ordinance states alcohol may not be sold within 2,000 feet of a church, and residential restrictions state alcohol cannot be sold for consumption within 500 feet of any residence; however sale is allowed between 500 and 1,000 feet of a residence if all property owners give written consent. If not all residents agree, the restriction is 1,000 feet. Additionally, the existing ordinance states alcohol may not be served, sold, or consumed between the hours of midnight and 7 a.m.

Changes include reducing the 2,000 feet requirement to 500 feet from schools, churches and residences. State statute only prohibits the sale of alcohol within 500 feet of a school. The only exception to the distance requirement is for restaurants, whose majority of sales comes from food. The hours of the existing ordinance will remain the same in the proposed ordinance.

A public hearing will be held August 24, to hear comments from the public regarding the proposed ordinance, followed by a meeting in which the board is expected to approve the updated ordinance.

The board is also expected to vote on a reduction to the number of county voting precincts.

Commissioner Tray Hawkins advised the board of recommendations by Supervisor of Elections Carol Finch Rudd to close precincts located at Courts of Praise Church, Shepherds Gate Church, and the Washington County Recycling Center.

Hawkins told the board closing those precincts would save the county more than $18,000 over a period of five years.

All three precincts are located in District 5 - Commissioner Steve Joyner's district - a result that Rudd says was not intentional. The precincts were selected based on voter Election Day turnout numbers over the past five years, and those precincts had the lowest in the county.

For example, out of 244 voters assigned to the Washington County Recycling Center precinct, only 71 turned out to vote on Election Day for the November 2016 election - the largest election in the county's recent history. Rudd estimates it cost more than $7 per vote cast that day to pay the poll workers just at that precinct.

Rudd states the reasoning behind the possible closures is purely budgetary, due to the county's need to update antiquated voting equipment.

If the county maintains all 16 of the current precincts, the annual cost to update the equipment will be $33,000.

"There will still be an equipment cost increase, but by closing the lesser-used precincts, we are hoping to lessen the financial impact," Rudd said.

Washington County is one of the few rural counties in the state to not reduce the number of voting precincts after the inception of early voting. Neighboring Holmes County reduced its precinct numbers by nearly half after voters were given the option of voting early.

Rudd states with the availability of early voting, which takes place at the Supervisor of Elections Office in Chipley for approximately 8-12 days before any county-wide election, the reduction of precincts should not infringe on any citizen's ability to cast their ballot. With early voting, it is estimated that no voter from the affected precincts would have to travel more than eight miles to vote.

Rudd also points to loosened restrictions on mail-in ballots as an option of which more and more voters are taking advantage.

"Vote by mail has also been made so convenient that we are seeing a large percentage vote that way," Rudd said. "Before, you had to have a good reason to vote by mail. Now, it is open to everyone."

Attorney Jeff Goodman mentioned a state grant that was designed to help counties offset the new equipment costs, but Rudd states she inquired about the grant and was told by the Florida Division of Elections that those funds have already been exhausted and are no longer available.

The board is expected to hear more information the Supervisor of Elections Office when commissioners meet in regular session Thursday before making a final decision next month.

In other business, an audit of county finances performed by Carr Riggs and Ingram Accounting Firm shows the county is in good shape financially.

The audit showed governmental funds at a total fund balance of $15,256,694, an increase of $923,598 from last fiscal year. According to accountant Sarah Applewhite, the county has made tremendous progress in making improvements in the last year by resolving half of the issues the audit showed last year.

Other items discussed during the workshop included the setting of the next fiscal year's tentative millage being discussed during the regular session meeting on Thursday and a 12-month extension to be approved on a lease agreement at the Campbell Park Cell Tower.

The county reports it made improvements to the area and inadvertently broke the agreement by blocking the lessee’s ability to access his property behind the leased area. The extension will make up for the time lost in the original agreement.

Bids for the Kirkland Road project are also expected to be presented and awarded during Thursday's meeting, as well as a resolution for a supplement agreement from Florida Department of Transportation that will add $8,000 to the Usery Road sidewalk project.

Washington County Board of County Commissioners will meet again in regular session at 9 a.m. on July 27.