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Gainer, Drake host delegation meetings

By Carol Kent Wyatt | Washington County News @CAROLKENTWYATT

HOLMES AND WASHINGTON COUNTIES – Senator George Gainer and Representative Brad Drake recently hosted a series of legislative delegation meetings to hear from constituents and government leaders in Holmes, Jackson, Walton, and Washington counties.

Holding steady on education funding was among topics raised in both Holmes and Washington counties, with Holmes County Superintendent of Schools Buddy Brown and Washington County Superintendent Joe Taylor each addressing the delegation.

Senator George Gainer and Representative Brad Drake held the 2021 Holmes County Delegation meeting at Bonifay K-8 on Friday, February 12, 2021.

“Education is the one thing I feel we cannot back up on,” said Superintendent Brown. “Florida has made great strides in the last few years; we’ve become a leader in education, and we can’t take the chance to back up on that now. We can sacrifice in other areas, but not for our future. We have to maintain.”

Superintendent Taylor addressed the delegates, expressing that in addition to protection from budget cuts, school districts need some flexibility with the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) funds.

Holmes County Sheriff John Tate addresses the delegation regarding a bill that would do away with the state pension plan and force new hires to instead participate in a 401(k)-type investment plan.

“I understand and I know that the Chairman of the House Appropriations has already said, ‘you can’t [offset] a $2.5 billion drop in sales tax without touching education’, but you understand education has already been cut tremendously anyway,” said Taylor. “The first [round of ESSER funds] was governed by emergency order from the Governor, and the second one will have more legislative oversight. What all school districts are asking for in this is flexibility. We have tremendous fixed costs; we have other costs [where] we have to plug holes. I’m offering to call you or come see you to show you how this looks from the school district side.”

In Holmes County, representatives from Doctors Memorial Hospital sought support for legislation which would provide an appropriation of $500,000 for the DMH Rural Critical Health Care Clinic.

“This bill will enable Doctors Memorial Hospital to provide opportunities to better serve our rural, underserved residents, giving them access to specialty healthcare closer to their homes,” said DMH Board Chair Cynthia Brooks. “One example of a specialty crucial for our rural population is pediatrics. Dr. Al-Farawai Khaled is a board-certified pediatrician employed by Doctors Memorial Hospital and is the only pediatrician in this area … We believe it would be advantageous for Dr. K to be able to see patients at other sites, not just Bonifay.”

Holmes County Sheriff John Tate expressed concerns over a Senate bill that’s been gaining traction and would end Florida’s pension plan, forcing all new employees to instead take part in an investment plan similar to a 401(k). Currently, new hires may choose between the two options.

Teachers, EMS staff, state corrections officers, and sheriff’s deputies are among those who would be impacted.

Sheriff Tate explained that if the bill passes, it would greatly impact the ability to find qualified staff in those professions.

“It’s hard enough to find law enforcement officers and correctional officers now, and if they do away with the pension program, it will be even harder,” said Sheriff Tate. “I understand that the bill will not affect people who are currently employed, but if it’s passed, it will affect whoever is hired from then on.”

“It’s not going to be easy to compete with larger agencies,” he added. “Back in the day, you could go to work with the sheriff’s office, and maybe if you didn’t make quite as much money as maybe you could with a police department, you had the state pension plan as a benefit, and that attracted help. The state retirement system used to be one of the best retirement systems in the country, but then they started chipping away at it. If this passes, it will make it harder to find good staff, whether it’s deputies, teachers, or EMS.”

Sheriff Tate further explained to the delegates that the pension is important to the future of public safety and education, not just in Holmes County, but across the state.

Delegates also heard from Suzy Vovchuk, who asked them to consider legislation that would help alleviate issues homeowners have faced since dealing with insurance companies in the wake of Hurricane Michael, as well as from residents of the Northdale subdivision about drainage issues which have been exacerbated by recent rain events, resulting in severe flooding in the neighborhood. Residents are hopeful delegates can help facilitate assistance from the Department of Transportation in getting culverts put in to help improve the drainage.

In Washington County, residents of Crystal Lake came to show support for the Crystal Lake Environmental Mitigation Project, a $1,052,928 appropriations request to help stabilize the area’s slopes and prevent further erosion. Project goals include road paving, providing stormwater treatment, and providing sodded swales with ditch blocks to prevent future sediment from entering the lake.

Delegates also heard from Doorways of Northwest Florida Executive Director Yvonne Petrasovits. The organization provides services to those experiencing homelessness in Bay, Gulf, Calhoun, Holmes, Jackson, and Washington counties. Petrasovits states about 2,100 individuals are homeless in the six-county area she serves, with that number seeing a sharp rise since Hurricane Michael. Petrasovits is hoping for funding to help those families.

Delegates also heard from Northwest Florida League of Cities President Bob Campbell, who outlined the organization’s legislative priorities, which includes supporting legislation that requires all monies from the Sadowski State and Local Housing Trust Funds be used for Florida’s affordable housing programs, as well as legislation that dedicates resources for local government cyber security initiatives, and legislation regarding Florida’s sales tax laws.

Look for more in-depth reports and updates on these stories in future editions of the Washington County News and Holmes County Times-Advertiser.