As lawmakers shifted their spending priorities this legislative session to school safety initiatives following the Parkland High School shooting, that left less money available for local water projects. And in many cases the projects that did receive funding are generally located in South and Central Florida—leaving small, rural, North Florida communities high and dry.
Gretna City Manager Antonio Jefferson says Rep. Ramon Alexander (D-Tallahassee) carried an $800,000 ask for the city this year. It would have helped provide water to the nearby town of Greensborough and could have helped spur new development—something Jefferson says is sorely needed in his community.
“One of the things that we’re seeing in rural Florida, and I’ll just kind of use the panhandle of Florida excluding Jacksonville—we have a declining population. We have challenges in providing adequate funding to our school systems,” Jefferson says.
Jefferson says a shrinking tax base in rural Florida is creating a vicious cycle. As more people move away from rural Florida, the local governments there have less money to spend on development projects and school funding. That in turn makes their communities less attractive to business—so they close their doors, leaving people without work and eventually forcing them to move away.
“It would be great if we got a better look each year from this legislature. A lot of the water money went to support those endeavors in and around Lake Okeechobee. I understand that. But at the end of the day North Florida still has those, while they may not be identical, we still have needs to support our community so that our kids, our families can find North Florida as a place to not only just retire and raise your grandchildren, but children that are leaving school can find opportunities here to grow a family, grow a business,” Jefferson says.
Jefferson says while the circumstances surrounding this year’s budgeting and the reasons for the legislature’s spending decisions were unique, the outcome was not—rural communities tend to be overlooked while large cities get more notice. And part of that is just how the legislature functions. The more people a community has, the more voices they get to represent them in the state government. But Jefferson say there are other potential partners for his city’s project—like the Northwest Florida water management district. Brett Cyphers is the executive director.
“The water projects are a great thing to have and they’re good for the local legislators who are trying to get these needed projects at home. But that’s only one of the places where that money comes from. We do the same types of projects with the same folks—the senators and representatives as well as working with DEP to do those same types of projects,” Cyphers says.
Cyphers says his organization’s budget has been growing over the years and combined with the money lawmakers allocated for spring restoration projects this year he says there’s enough money to help a lot of local communities, like Gretna, get their projects under way. Meanwhile, Jefferson says he plans to continue working to raise the voice of rural Florida.