SPECIAL REPORT: Disaster Dollars

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BAY COUNTY, Fla. (WMBB)- The Deepwater Horizon oil spill devastated the Gulf waters after the drilling rig exploded in 2010, sending 4 million barrels of oil into the water. The spill was labeled as the worst manmade disaster in U.S. maritime history.

Coastal counties in the Panhandle felt the direct impact of the spill and the state of Florida sought reimbursement for the damages. Through the creation of Triumph Gulf Coast, those impacted counties would see funds that would help expand the economy in the area. 

“Legislation was passed saying, whatever money was received for the settlement, a percentage of that goes to Triumph Gulf Coast,” said Triumph Gulf Coast Board Member, Allan Bense.

Triumph is a non-profit that was organized to oversee the spending of 75% of all funds recovered by the Florida attorney general for economic damages to the state. It is important to note that Triumph has nothing to do with taxpayer dollars and is the sole result of the lawsuit that was filed in relation to the BP oil spill. 

“It is the legal settlement for the state and 1.2 billion was set aside to be distributed amongst the 8 affected counties,” said Bay Co. Commission Chairman, Philip ‘Griff’ Griffitts.

The counties that benefit from the lawsuit include Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Franklin Gulf, and Wakulla. However, it took years for the funds to be dispersed. 

The deepwater horizon spill happened in 2010. In the following years, a number of bills were passed to begin addressing the economic and environmental impacts of the spill. By May of 2013, Triumph Gulf Coast Incorporated was created. 

The lawsuit was filed and in years following the creation of the non-profit, the ball finally got rolling. In July of 2016, Attorney General at the time, Pam Bondi, received the first settlement payment in the amount of $400 million. 

In 2017, the vision of triumph became a reality as the first funds were dispersed to potential projects in the Panhandle. Projects that would encourage companies to not just come to the area, but expand and provide hundreds of jobs, projects like GKN. 

While the first funds were released in 2017, Triumph board members say they see the money lasting for decades if it’s dispersed responsibility. 

“There’s frustration because we’re slow, we’re methodical. As a board member, I don’t want to see us advance 2 million dollars to a company that goes away in 6 months,” said Bense. While it can be a timely process, it’s all for good reason. Bense says the board of Triumph wants to make sure they’re awarding money to a company that truly will expand the economy locally and not just fizzle out in years to come. 

Triumph Gulf Coast has access to millions, if not billions of dollars annually. With the recent devastation of Hurricane Michael, many have posed the question of if and how Triumph funds can help with recovery efforts. 

While Triumph funds are specifically for projects that expand the economy, the board was able to provide slight hurricane relief by funding the Ad Valorem Tax-loss replacement for Bay County, Bay District Schools and municipal taxing authorities throughout the county. 

“We had the opportunity to apply for funds to offset Ad Valorem losses, and that’s what we did. We applied for the grant through the Triumph funds and we received around 10 million dollars that were distributed amongst all the cities that have an Ad Valorem tax as well as the school district,” said Griffitts. 

The grant was approved in late April with a grand total of $10,728,316.65. 

Retain by County for General Fund: $3,082,615.35

Disburse to MSTU-Fire: $248,597.18

Distribute to Mosquito Control: $151,524.66

Bay District Schools RLE: $3,269,064.04

Bay District School Discretionary: $1,631,330.70

City of Panama City: $1,216,659.33

City of Mexico Beach: $523,580.48

City of Springfield: $87,990.73

City of Callaway: $130,038.27

City of Lynn Haven: $386,915.91

Due to the amount of damage from Hurricane Michael, the County will be receiving far less in property taxes this year and in the years to come. “Property losses were dramatic so people whose home was once taxed at a certain value, now that value is obviously lower because of the damage assessment,” said Griffitts. The money from Triumph specifically for Ad Valorem losses will help offset that blow. 

Griffitts said he was hesitant about applying for any of the Triumph funds because he didn’t want to distract from the true purpose of the funds which is economic expansion and diversity. However this is just the first of many difficult budget years to come due to the storm, so this money will help. 

Griffitts encourages everyone to look into their housing situation and make sure they are paying the proper amount of property taxes. 

“If you have a home that was damaged, we encourage you to go to the property appraiser’s website, he has a hurricane form. You can fill it out, you can submit pictures to make sure your property tax is assessed at the correct value and you’re not paying on a home that you might not be able to live in and it should be reduced,” he said. 

Paying less in property taxes may be slight relief for a homeowner. “I guess you could say it’s less on your pocketbook but you’re probably feeling the effects somewhere else while rebuilding your home at some level,” said Griffitts. 

As far as Triumph’s assistance in hurricane relief, the Ad Valorem assistance is the only way they are helping post-storm. Bense says Bay County is a blank slate for the opportunity and they are still focused on expanding the economy. 

One of the main focuses is moving away from a tourism and military economy and more towards a manufacturing economy. 

Anyone can apply for grant money if they believe they have an idea that will help speed up the Panhandle’s economic growth. “Go online, there is a pre-app and an application and we have a great, tentative and qualified staff who can evaluate your proposal,” said Bense. 

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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