CHIPLEY - Washington County's five municipalities are the first in a series of "listening" stops being made by Senator George Gainer (R-Panama City) in an effort to gain input on the needs of every town in his six-county district.
Gainer, who sent out letters to each local government entity in District 2 last month to request the meetings, sat down with a representative from Caryville, Chipley, Ebro, Vernon, and Wausau earlier this week.
"I had asked these officials to sit down with me to discuss what their current needs/obstacles/opportunities are and how I can best assist them," Gainer told the Washington County News on Thursday. "It is of paramount importance that the communication between myself and the towns, cities, counties, and municipalities that make up our district, District 2, is consistent, strong and effective. I will work tirelessly to ensure every tool available is being utilized to make certain these towns succeed. This is what the people hired me to do, and I will continue to fight for the things they deserve."
Local leaders certainly had no shortage of requests for the Senator.
Chief among those requests were that Gainer continue to support the Small County Outreach Program (SCOP) and the Florida Recreation Development Assistance Program (FRDAP).
SCOP provides states grants to help small governments like Washington County towns and cities in repairing or rehabilitating county bridges, paving roads, addressing road-related drainage improvements, resurfacing, while FRDAP provides financial assistance to improve public parks and also develop and/or acquire land for public outdoor recreational use.
"This kind of funding is so important to small communities, and we asked that Sen. Gainer continue to support the program as a whole, as well as our needs here," said Chipley City Administrator Dan Miner.
Chipley also requested continued support to fund design and construction as efforts to expand utilities south of Interstate 10 progress, as well as the city's need for additional sprayfields.
In addition to SCOP concerns, Wausau also requested help in covering the cost of relocating the town's water lines, a measure that will become necessary as the expansion of State Road 77 nears completion.
"We actually just paid to upgrade the water system about three years ago, and we cannot shoulder that financial burden alone," said Wausau Mayor Roger Hagan. "We believe we may be able to get something worked out with the Florida Department of Transportation but did discuss it with the Senator."
Wausau is also hoping Gainer will take a look at the formula used for the state's revenue sharing in hopes it can be updated so that Washington County - and ultimately, Wausau - can receive a larger share.
Hagan expressed his appreciation to Gainer and also to County Commission Tray Hawkins, who was present on behalf of the Washington County Board of Commissioners.
"We appreciate Senator Gainer and Commissioner Hawkins for their coming over here and not forgetting Washington County, specifically the Town of Wausau," Hagan said.
Caryville Town Clerk Suzanne Floyd took the opportunity to advise Gainer of progress made by the town in the wake of several state sanctions due to improperly handled finances.
"We wanted him to know that our current council is interested in doing what is right and making the town better as a whole," she said. "We also asked for his help in supporting us getting a Community Development Block Grant we requested that will help us replace the water lines, as well as help with the FEMA land."
Currently, more than half of Caryville is tied to a FEMA mitigation agreement that came into effect after FEMA entrusted the land to the town after the 1994 floods. The agreement restricts the use of the land for anything but conservation - a restriction that officials say has the community missing out on much needed revenue.
"We are hindered by the fact that FEMA bought out roughly half the town," Floyd said. "We can't sell any of the property. Last year, there was interest in putting a truck stop here, but our hands were tied by that agreement."
Floyd also invited Gainer, a self proclaimed "expert worm fiddler" to prove his skills at the town's next Worm Fiddlin' Festival.
Ebro kept its request simple, with Mayor David Evans asking for help improving the town's ballfields, as well as placing lighting at the intersection of Highways 79 and 20.
Vernon Mayor Tina Sloan expressed frustration with FEMA funding and explained some of the problems the city ahs had in getting projects completed.
The community center, City Hall, waste water treatment plant, and gym are all still waiting for work to repair damage caused by a 2013 excessive rain event - work that has been hindered by an overturn of FEMA staff and delays in funding.
"We simply need FEMA to allocate funds faster," Sloan told Gainer, who lived in Vernon for much of his childhood. "We are not able to pay for all these projects without that help."
Gainer expressed confidence in his ability to help resolve each town's concerns.
"I am committed to making sure every part of my district is not only represented, but represented better than they have ever been," he said. "I have and will continue to take a proactive approach to working with the both the people and officials in my district, which includes not just waiting for a call, but rather reaching out numerous times throughout the year so they know I am a full time Senator working full time for them."
"Our rural areas have growing needs and often do not possess the financial resources to meet that growth. As part of the Florida legislature, it is my job to actively pursue every resource available to assist with these needs. My first session was very successful, and I anticipate the next to be even better."
Gainer is expected to soon host similar meetings in the other five counties making up his district: Bay, Holmes, Jackson, Okaloosa, and Walton.