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Author: Ken Garner

Elections office already receiving mail-in ballots

Villane gave a brief election update at the Milton City Council’s regular meeting Oct. 11, just hours before the voter registration deadline for this fall’s general election. The books closed at 11:59 p.m. that night.

According to the Elections Office’s website, 145,659 county residents had registered to vote as of Friday, Oct. 14. Almost 60 percent registered as members of the Republican Party. Voters registered as something other than Republicans or Democrats made up 24 percent of the total and registered Democrats were a little more than 16 percent of the total.

Villane said the City of Milton has more than 7,500 registered voters, although she didn’t offer a breakdown by party.

She said voter turnout in the city was 68.2 percent for the 2020 general election, in which Joe Biden defeated former President Trump. For the last mid-term election, in 2018, turnout was down to 49 percent in Milton. Villane said more Milton voters waited until election day to cast their ballots in 2018, but more voted early in 2020.

The Elections Office already had mailed more than 23,000 ballots by Oct. 11.

“We don’t just send ballots out to everyone,” Villane said, emphasizing that to receive a vote-by-mail ballot, also called an absentee ballot, voters must submit a request by 5 p.m. Oct. 29. The request must include the voters name, date of birth, and address and either the voter’s Florida driver’s license number, Florida ID number, or the last four digits of the voter’s Social Security Number. Mail-in-ballots must be received at the Elections Office by 7 p.m. on Election Day, Nov. 8.

Voters may cast their ballots between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 24, through Saturday, Nov. 5, at any of the following sites:

City manager accuses residents of trying to ‘sabotage’ treatment plant project

One slide said, “This subversive effort is nothing but a misinformation campaign designed to sabotage infrastructure critical to our entire county’s future.”

“This is the greatest example of ‘not in my backyard’ that I’ve ever witnessed,” Jorgensen said during his presentation Oct. 11.

In the mid-2000s, state and federal environmental authorities ordered Milton to stop discharging treated wastewater from the existing plant on Municipal Drive into the Blackwater River by Dec. 31, 2025. The city bought property in East Milton for a new plant in 2009 and began seeking funding for the multimillion-dollar project. The city broke ground on the project in February 2021, but construction bids came back almost twice the city’s anticipated cost, and the project was put on hold while staff looked for ways to cut costs.

Jorgensen said the city has secured $43.9 million, enough to fund the project’s first phase (building the new plant and rapid-infiltration basins and main stations at Naval Air Station Whiting Field). The overall project is expected to cost almost $68 million. He said construction bids for the plant are due in December and will be awarded in January. He expects the construction permit for the RIBs to be approved in December 2022, with additional disposal areas identified, acquired, designed, permitted and constructed between 2022-2025.

All aspects of Phase 1 will be completed by August 2025, Jorgensen said.

Meanwhile, Milton Concerned Citizens continues to lobby state and federal agencies to rethink approval of the city’s proposed location. About the same time the city announced plans to break ground at the proposed site, Pam Mitchell of Cooper’s Basin created Milton Concerned Citizens to convince the city that its proposed location could threaten the basin and Blackwater River.

Concerns include erosion; pollution caused by flooding or hurricane damage; Gulf sturgeon habitat being disrupted; proximity to Cooper Cemetery, which allegedly contains remains of Union and Confederate soldiers from the Civil War; and destruction of a “seepage slope” wetlands at the site of the planned construction.

Jorgensen addressed the group’s concerns in his presentation, arguing that the activists purposely exaggerated their claims to build sympathy for their cause.

For example, he showed a Milton Concerned Citizens’ illustration of the proposed plant’s proximity to Cooper Cemetery in which the cemetery’s size was shown much larger than its actual size to appear to neighbor the proposed plant.

Jorgensen said in actuality, the property lines are 117 feet apart, and the cemetery is 217 feet from the closest rapid-infiltration basin that will process treated effluent from the plant.

He showed photos of a Florida Power & Light substation being constructed on county property next to the plant site; the site had been clear cut and red clay had been reported to be eroding into the basin, but Jorgensen said its project would take all necessary provisions to retain stormwater to prevent the same type of erosion.

Jorgensen also shared statements by Milton resident and activist Jerry Couey complaining that the new plant would obstruct residents’ view upriver to downtown Milton and claiming that the endangered Gulf Sturgeon only spawned in Cooper’s Basin and in the Pascagoula River in Mississippi. Jorgensen showed photos from the proposed plant site, noting the view Couey wanted to protect doesn’t exist, and FDEP information describing sturgeon spawning in many freshwater streams and pools throughout the state.

Couey later said he misspoke; a federal biologist told concerned citizens that sturgeon exhibit a rare spawning behavior at Cooper’s Basin and the Pascagoula River.

Finally, Jorgensen presented separate maps projecting areas that would be impacted by a 500-year flood and a Category 5 hurricane. The proposed plant site is not in the hurricane impact area and, although it would be vulnerable to a 500-year flood, Jorgensen said if the site ever floods, “it will be the least of our problems; the majority of the City of Milton will not be here.”

Mayor Heather Lindsay asked residents to keep their comments professional and addressed to her, as the meeting’s presiding officer. She also expressed surprise at Jorgensen’s comments about the residents group.

“I must not let you think that it’s OK for us to have personal attacks on anyone,” Lindsay said. “I will say had I known what Mr. Jorgensen’s approach was in his presentation, I would have asked him to make some changes to it.”

Mitchell disagreed with Jorgensen’s portrayal of Milton Concerned Citizens’ efforts and said she was “quite proud” of the work it had done.

“I’m a layperson, y’all; a layperson. I take all the convoluted terms that the engineers use and put it into language that y’all can understand, and then (Jorgensen) calls that misinformation,” Mitchell said. “That is not right, folks, I have not spread misinformation. I may have said things that he disagrees with, but that does NOT make it misinformation.”

Lauren Cooper, after whose family the basin and cemetery are named, had personal as well as environmental concerns about the proposed location.

“I don’t believe any of y’all would like a port-a-potty sitting next to your family cemetery or burial plot,” she said, but added that the proposed plant won’t meet the area’s capacity needs, “but you are going to put our river at risk, and that’s what we don’t want. We want you to find a new location and build this plant. But you have to be smart; this isn’t smart.”

School district approves football at Central

“I would like to thank (Santa Rosa County District Schools Superintendent Dr. Karen) Barber, her leadership team and Mr. Lay for their support of this and many other academic and facility issues that have been addressed this year,” Haynes Gandy, youth football program director and coach wrote on the organization’s Facebook page. “Thank you, community, parents and grandparents for making this happen.”

On Saturday, the Jaguars 14-and-under squad beat Cantonment 46-32 for its second win of the Northwest Florida Youth Sports Alliance season, while the 12U squad lost the earlier game.

“We played shorthanded and many of our players never left the field,” Gandy said. “It was inspiring for me to see them stay in the fight and never give up. This is the spirit and desire I hope to see in our (junior varsity) program as we start high school ball. This will be a process and we will be learning as we go. I know it will be worth the effort.”

The community has worked for several years to get permission to start interscholastic football. Gandy said the district suggested that proving the community would support a youth program could help improve its case for a high school team. He and a group of volunteers registered with the Northwest Florida Youth Sports Alliance, which includes youth teams from Escambia and Santa Rosa counties in divisions 6U-14U.

About 40 boys showed up for the first Jaguar practice, and Central entered teams in the 12U and 14U age divisions.

Those players will be the foundation of the first generation of Jaguars’ football.

Supporters left jubilant comments on the Central Jaguars Youth Football Program Facebook page after Gandy’s announcement.

“Friday night lights in Allentown!” wrote Miranda Allen. “I can’t wait!”

In an earlier post, Allen thanked Gandy and the team’s supporters.

“Thank you, especially to the coaches, parents and community,” she wrote. “Our kids couldn’t do it alone, paving the way to make these teams happen. The interest has always been there, but for the first time, the right people made it reality.”

Carly Enfinger wrote, “This is awesome! So happy for Central!”

“Will be exciting for Jay and Central to continue to have a great rivalry in all sports, but now football, too!” Jane Hayes added.

Ann Crapps said in a post. “Been a long time in the making, but it’s finally going to happen. Now the residents of Allentown, Chumuckla and Munson need to come out and support this new team. Go Jags!”

Gandy said he expected the Jaguars would play in the Florida High School Athletics Association Rural Division’s Region R1; in 2022, Region R1 includes Baker, Panama City-Bozeman, Chipley, Freeport, Graceville, Bonifay-Holmes County, Jay, Century-Northview, and Vernon. Gandy said Flomaton, Ala., which is only about a 30-minute drive northwest of Central, would be an interstate rival.

County making plans to lease Whittle Building

Piech met with FDOT District 3 Secretary Phillip Gainer at a recent Emerald Coast Resource Council meeting and asked Gainer and his staff to clarify its plans for the county-owned property.

“Yes, the (project development and environment study) identifies that facility and that property as necessary for future expansion,” Piech said at the commission’s committee meeting. “The PD&E takes precedence. They did say they’re going to need that property; they’re not in a position right now (to buy the Whittle Building) because they don’t have the right-of-way acquisition in (the budget) right now, they’re just starting the design.”

Commission Chairman Bob Cole directed staff to prepare a request for proposals to lease the property “as-is,” ensuring the RFP requires the tenant to repair the property so it passes the relevant code inspections and puts the property to use within a specific period of time after the lease agreement is signed. Potential bidders will be made aware that asbestos found at the property must be abated and would be allowed to inspect the property to determine repair costs before bidding.

Staff will present the proposed RFP at a future meeting.

The county acquired the property at 6828 Caroline Street (U.S. 90) in 1994, but it was declared surplus in 2019 after FDOT determined the best way to improve traffic flow through Milton is to widen the highway along its existing route.

But the building has fallen into disrepair, and area property owners began urging the commission to sell or lease the property and ensure the new owners or tenants fix the building and put it to productive use.

Commissioners have been reluctant to sell the building because they feared the buyer may just wait to sell the property to FDOT at an inflated price. Commissioner Colten Wright repeated that concern Monday.

“I do not like the idea of selling the property right now,” he said. “I just have a really hard time understanding why we would just cost every one of us, as taxpayers, more money down the road for FDOT right-of-way acquisition knowing that it’s coming.”

Pastor Zack Sims and lay pastor Andy Bell from Providence Church of Milton told the commission last month the church, which currently meets at the First Presbyterian Church’s Fellowship Hall at 205 Elmira Street, would like to move into the 5,400-square-foot building when its current lease ends in May 2023.

“We’re looking for a place,” Sims said. “If you’re looking to sell, we’re a buyer; if you’re looking to lease, we’re a leaser.”

A recent inspection discovered asbestos in the 64-year-old building, but Bell said that’s not a problem.

“We would definitely be very open to an as-is lease,” Bell told commissioners, adding that the church would abate the asbestos and repair the building. “We don’t have a problem renovating the building.”

Bell did ask when the state might move to acquire the building, adding that the church would want to remain in the building long enough to recoup its investment.

“We’re hopeful to build our own space, anyway,” Bell said. “This would help us buy some time to do that.”

FDOT expects to begin a $2.75-million design of the project to widen U.S. 90 from two to four lanes between Stewart Street and Ward Basin Road early next year. The design phase is expected to take as long as two years, but currently the state has committed no funding for right-of-way acquisition or construction.

Commissioner Sam Parker supported the church’s cause.

“Thank God for the churches we have,” he said. “Whether it be 9-11, a hurricane or whatever, the first thing people do is turn to churches for aid. They turn to churches for prayer, they turn to them for benevolent relief, they’ve got food drives…churches are there. When that pastor says they’re involved in the community…Christian organizations in our community and our country are more benevolent and giving than anybody in the country. That didn’t just start, that goes back to the beginning of our country.”

Parker said the county should solicit lease proposals, noting that the commission is not required to choose the proposal that offers the greatest payment.

“That way we could open (the church’s proposal) to see what it says,” Parker added. “That’s not to say we’d just give it to the church.”

The 5,400-square-foot building dates to 1958, when it was built to be the home of the Whittle Motor Company. The Whittle family sold the property, on a quarter-acre lot fronting Caroline Street, to Pensacola State College (then Pensacola Junior College) in 1983.

Jubilee owners drop rezoning request

The Eagle Group, which owns the 2,700-acre Jubilee property northeast of Pace between Luther Fowler and Willard Norris roads, has withdrawn its request to rezone the property to allow greater housing density.
Santa Rosa County Planning Director Shawn Ward announced today (Friday, Oct. 7) that a request to change Jubilee’s zoning from AG-RR, which allows one home per acre, to TC-1, which would allow up to 10 dwelling units per acre, has been withdrawn and a special meeting scheduled Oct. 20 to hear the request has been canceled. The Eagle Group cannot reapply for a similar rezoning for at least six months.

Walton pitches site for medical examiner’s facility

“Up until July, the board’s consensus was (that the new building would be in) Santa Rosa County,” DOMES Chief Executive Officer Dan Shebler said Sept. 28 at a special facilities meeting. “Walton County has offered us free land in one of its industrial parks; that makes four potential sites.”

Escambia County has hosted the medical examiner’s facility at Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola for decades. The Escambia County Commission wants to keep the service in Escambia County and has proposed moving the operation to Sacred Heart’s basement or into an existing building owned by Baptist Hospital at the corner of Moreno and E streets.

District One is comprised by Florida’s westernmost four counties – Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, and Walton. Santa Rosa and Okaloosa board members had agreed the new facility should be more centrally located due to rapid population growth in the three easternmost counties.

Melissa Thomason, Walton County’s finance director and one of its three DOMES representatives, said Walton is offering land near Mossy Head, less than three miles from the Okaloosa County line.

“Mr. (Tony) Cornman (Walton County interim administrator) and Mr. (Michael) Barker (Walton County commission chairman) wanted me to emphasize that this land is free, it will have no effect on the county’s share of the building cost,” Thomason said at last week’s meeting. Santa Rosa County has proposed that the cost of the 5-acre site on Commerce Road in Milton should be deducted from the county’s share of construction costs.

DOMES has hired Caldwell Associates Architects to determine the best location for the facility. That study is expected to be completed in December.

Russell McElroy of McClaren, Wilson & Lawrie Architects – a firm that specializes in designing public safety and forensic science facilities – has designed a 29,000-square-foot facility to sit on five acres at a cost of about $24 million.

He told DOMES representatives last week the design is projected to support the district’s needs through 2044.

McElroy said the National Association of Medical Examiner’s recommends facilities have 700-1,000 square feet of space per staff member.

Currently, the medical examiner’s office has just 4,000 square feet, less than 138 feet for each of 29 staff members. He projected the district will need at least 57 staff members by 2044, based on each county’s growing number of yearly autopsies.

The proposed facility will be expandable, McElroy said, to allow the district to meet future needs.

Milton passes 2023 millage rate, budget at brief special meeting

State law requires taxing authorities to conduct two public hearings prior to adopting the millage rate and final budget. Milton scheduled and advertised a special meeting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 22, for to hold second hearings and approve the budget measures.

The council adopted a millage rate of 2.99 mills for total property-tax revenue of $1,358,948 – about 10.6 percent of the city’s $12,708,844 general fund budget, which pays the city’s day-to-day operations costs. Including the city’s Community Redevelopment Area and enterprise funds, the overall budget for the budget year that started Oct. 1 is $33,367,556.

“Thank you,” City Manager Randy Jorgensen said before Mayor Pro Tem Casey Powell adjourned the meeting, the only comment addressed to the council. Mayor Heather Lindsay (who only votes to break a tie) and councilmembers Vernon Compton, Matt Jarrett and Shannon Rice were absent.

No residents offered any questions or comments during the public hearings.

At the council’s regular meeting earlier in September, Rice successfully argued that the city should increase employees’ pay an additional 1.1 percent. At her suggestion, the city had increased employee pay by 8 percent effective the last pay period in June because of rapidly rising inflation.

At the time, the council said the increase would replace the annual cost-of-living adjustment employees receive in November based on the national consumer price index. But when that index rose to 9.1 percent, Rice argued that employees were entitled to the additional 1.1 percent not covered by the earlier raise.

Council unanimously approved using funds from the city’s reserves to cover the amount of the increase, which Jorgensen estimated at about $5,000. Still, council was required to hold a public hearing and approve an ordinance to make the adjustment official.

Is Central ready for some football?

The first-year teams are 1-4 with two games left, and results like Saturday’s are typical. Assistant coach Chad Stuart said about 40 boys showed up for the first practice in August, but only three or four had any experience playing organized football.

The program recruits from the rural communities served by Central School, a K-12 institution on a small campus near Allentown. With a smaller population base from which to recruit, the Jaguars are smaller and less experienced than players on other Northwest Florida Youth Sports Alliance teams.

The league includes squads from Gulf Breeze, Milton, Navarre, Pace and the greater Pensacola area.

“It’s been a crash course,” Stuart said, noting that the parents have been supportive, but also lack practical experience running a football program.

Why bother?

“This program started this spring for the sole purpose of demonstrating to (Santa Rosa County District Schools Superintendent Karen Barber) and her leadership team the school and local community would support a high school football team,” said Haynes Gandy, the team’s head coach and program founder.

Gandy said Chumuckla and Allentown fielded teams in the 1950s but said he doesn’t believe the school has had a team since Allentown, Chumuckla and Munson consolidated into Central in the 1980s.

For decades, students from Central’s district have had to transfer to Jay or Milton to play football, Stuart said. The Jaguar Athletic Booster Club, which is sponsoring the youth program, would like to keep those kids and create a rallying point for area residents.

“We don’t really have a town,” Stewart said, “so we don’t really have those kinds of connections as a community. The school and sports provide a kind of identity for our families.”

Gandy agreed. Football, the nation’s most popular sport, would bring its own set of traditions and pageantry to the school and community, he said.

“It’s smalltown football on a Friday night,” he said. “There’s nothing quite like it.”

While the teams have only generated a pair of wins on the field, Gandy said the program is making a difference in the classroom.

“We had a meeting … about grades, and after the games (Sept. 24) I had three players and a parent tell me they pulled their grades up in a week,” Gandy said in a Facebook post to the team’s supporters at Central Jaguars Youth Football Team. “That tells me we are doing the right thing at the right time for these kids.”

In the same post, Gandy reminded followers that the football program isn’t just for the players.

“It touches the entire school and community,” he said. “It will immediately generate a marching band, interest in ROTC to present our flag pre-game, local churches hosting ‘fifth-quarter’ events for all of our students, and many other things as well.

There is no reason for this not to continue for them next year at the high school level. Go Jags!”

Gandy said he expected the Jaguars would play in the Florida High School Athletics Association Rural Division’s Region R1; in 2022, Region R1 includes Baker, Panama City-Bozeman, Chipley, Freeport, Graceville, Bonifay-Holmes County, Jay, Century-Northview, and Vernon. Gandy said Flomaton, Ala., which is only about a 30-minute drive northwest of Central, would be an interstate rival.

Stuart said supporters hope the school board will consider the group’s request before the end of the year. The hope is to hire a coach this winter and field Central School’s first interscholastic team next fall. 

The program fields teams in two age groups (although NFYSA offers eight age groups beginning with under-6) and cheerleading squads. The program started from nothing, Gandy said. The boosters had to raise money to pay for all of the equipment, uniforms, supplies, insurance and other expenses from registration fees and community donations. It was careful to keep its registration fee equal to the City of Milton’s fee for its football program.

“I felt this was critical to keep our players from going to another area park” that might have lower fees, Gandy said.

The teams share eight volunteer coaches, two team moms, a cheerleader coordinator and a hydration specialist. The teams practice at Central School, on the track’s infield, and occasionally at the lighted field at the Chumuckla Community Center.

For more information, follow the Central Jaguars Youth Football Team on Facebook. Donations can be mailed to the Jaguar Athletic Boosters Club Inc., at P.O. Box 4603, Milton, FL 32572.

The team is sponsoring the first-ever football pep rally at Central School beginning at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 14 at the school’s track.

The Central School band will perform, the junior class will sell food to raise money for prom, the Jaguars’ baseball team will be selling boiled peanuts, and the booster club will be selling t-shirts and raffling gift baskets.

Homemakers Holiday Fair set Saturday

The 41st Annual Homemakers Holiday Fair will be held 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sat., Oct. 1 at the Santa Rosa County Auditorium, 4530 Spikes Way in Milton. There is no admission fee for this event.

The Homemakers Holiday Fair features crafts made by local artisans, homemade soup, sandwiches and desserts, and door prizes. Tickets will be available for purchase to win a queen-size handmade quilt.  For more information, contact the University of Florida-Santa Rosa County Cooperative Extension Service-IFAS at 850-623-3868, between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. weekdays

FPL offers free BBQ, energy services

Florida Power & Light will serve free barbecue from noon-4 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 22, at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, 6451 Park Ave., Milton, to kickoff its Community Energy Saver program.

FPL provides free energy services including limited duct system repair, caulking and weatherstripping installation, water heater pipe-wrap installation, faucet aerator and low-flow showerhead installation, A/C unit inspection, and energy efficient light bulbs.

Call toll-free (855) 801-6192 to schedule an appointment with the Community Energy Saver team.

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