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County slams door on island incorporation

Franklin County commissioners on Tuesday morning put an
emphatic kibosh, at least for the time being, to a nearly two-year long effort
by St. George Island activists to incorporate as a town.

By a unanimous vote, commissioners rejected a request from a
member of the working group that advocates for incorporation to place a
non-binding referendum on the August 23, 2022 primary ballot, for a vote open
to all residents of the island.

Shannon Bothwell, one of the members of the St. George
Island Citizen Working Group, said that while such a “straw poll” vote is not
mandated by the statutory requirement for incorporation, it would come at no
cost to voters.

“It would be simply an opportunity for people of St. George
Island to express their opinion in a non-binding way,” she said, noting that
State Rep. Jason Shoaf had asked for such a vote before he would back a bill in
the Florida Legislature in Spring 2023 that would allow for a formal, binding
referendum on incorporation by island voters sometime after that.

She said that some of the state requirements for incorporation,
such as a total population of at least 1,500 persons in counties with a
population of 75,000 or less, are “relics of a bygone area,” since they have not
restricted other areas in the state of incorporating in recent years.

“What the state really cares about is whether a new municipality
is going to be financially sound, or will it become a financial burden to the
state?” said Bothwell.

“They put laws on the books and we supposed to go by them.  I
don’t understand that,” said Commissioner Noah Lockley.

“Everything we’re talking about is a lawful process,” said

Members of the public who spoke out at the meeting were
nearly all opposed to holding an incorporation straw poll.

“You guys have done a fine job of keeping it (the island) up.
What they’re talking about is going to cost me in ways I can’t afford,” said
island resident Theresa Spohrer.

Her fellow longtime island residents, Larry Hale and Barbara
Sanders, spoke out in even more strident ways,

“This is the first time I’ve ever met or seen this woman,”
he said. “And they pretend to represent a faction on St. George Island.

“I think we’ve been doing just fine, the island’s come a
long way,” said Hale. He said stormwater drainage remains a problem to be dealt
with, and that can come within the current governmental structure.

Sanders was critical of the advocates’ claim that a town could
be funded by 3.0 mills, or that the state rules governing incorporation should
be set aside.

“For someone to dismiss that policy as a bygone-era mistake ,I think is shortsighted,” she said. “You will find quickly taxes will be maxxed
out, and homebuyers will be priced off the island, as will renters.

“I would look very suspiciously at the claim this kind of
seductive idea will be low-cost,” Sanders said. “All of these illusory promises,
I think if we did take this step, would go quickly awry.

“It’s a big issue, it’s an unnecessary issue,” she said. “I
think basically we should kill it right now and be done with it. It’s been a
big waste of people’s time.”

Teresa Bestor said she supported the straw poll. “I’m in
favor myself,” she said. “If we had a straw poll on an existing ballot, we
would know exactly how people really did feel.”

Jo Ellen Pearman, also an island resident, said that additional
taxes “would force the little people like me off the island. This is a waste
of everybody’s time. The majority don’t want to pay more money for services
they have now.”

Commission Chairman Ricky Jones spoke out against the straw
vote, beginning by ticking off the county tax millages in other Big Bend
counties, nearly all of which Franklin is at or below.

“None of these counties except for Franklin are dealing with
the federal and state government owning 90 percent of the land,” he said,
noting that the county’s ad valorem millages has dropped one mill since he was
first elected to the board.

“We’ve done the best we can do with providing services,” he
said. “I oppose this going even to a straw poll. Too many people have worked
their whole life (to live on the island). By one act of government, we can
completely derail their ambitions and hopes and dreams of living there.”

In making his motion to deny, which Smokey Parrish seconded,
Commissioner Noah Lockley said the backers of incorporation have offered a
misleading scenario.

“If they think they’re going to run the island for three
mills, there’s no way,” he said.

To read more about the movement to incorporate, visit townofsgi.com

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Meet the Editor

David Adlerstein, The Apalachicola Times’ digital editor, started with the news outlet in January 2002 as a reporter.

Prior to then, David Adlerstein began as a newspaperman with a small Boston weekly, after graduating magna cum laude from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He later edited the weekly Bellville Times, and as business reporter for the daily Marion Star, both not far from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

In 1995, he moved to South Florida, and worked as a business reporter and editor of Medical Business newspaper. In Jan. 2002, he began with the Apalachicola Times, first as reporter and later as editor, and in Oct. 2020, also began editing the Port St. Joe Star.

Wendy Weitzel The Star Digital Editor

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