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BCC votes to table action on road and bridge funds going to DeFuniak Springs

The DeFuniak Springs Herald of DeFuniak Springs, Florida

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County officials have opted for more research before taking any action with regard to county ad valorem taxes historically sent to the city of DeFuniak Springs to be used on county roads and bridges within the city limits.

According to discussion at the Oct. 27 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) meeting at the Walton County Courthouse, the remittance of these county funds to the city has occurred for approximately 100 years. Current BCC members were apparently unaware of the road and bridge funding going to the city prior to the matter being brought to their attention by south Walton County resident Bob Hudson at the Oct. 13 BCC meeting.

The lack of BCC awareness may have been due to the fact that, as was reported at the Oct. 27 meeting, the portion of county ad valorem taxes going to the city had been disbursed directly from the Walton County Tax Collector to the city. This is in contrast with other county ad valorem taxes, which are distributed to the Walton County Clerk of Courts. The clerk is also comptroller for the county and pays the county's bills and expenses as set forth in the county budget.

William Pennington, finance director for the clerk of courts, and Walton County Finance Manager Melissa Thomason both recently stated that the road and bridge disbursement is funding that their offices never see. Due to it being sent directly to the city, it has not appeared in the county budget.

Walton County Attorney Mark Davis had prepared a memo for the Oct. 27 BCC meeting giving the historical and legal background on the matter.

Highlights of the document were that: since 1916, the Walton County Tax Collector has been remitting a small portion of the ad valorem taxes collected for Walton County to DeFuniak Springs; in 1980 DeFuniak Springs City Council minutes refer to direct distribution of ad valorem taxes collected for Walton County not only to DeFuniak Springs but also to Freeport and Paxton; DeFuniak Springs City Council minutes from the same year refer to a dispute between the city and the county involving the payment of these funds and the county attorney being directed to contact the auditor general on the issue; according to BCC minutes, the DeFuniak Springs city clerk appeared before the BCC in August 1980 to ask for unpaid road and bridge taxes for 1979-80 in the amount of $26,824.23; it was determined that payment of a portion of the road and bridge millage collected by the county was required to be paid to the city by Florida Statute 336.59, as calculated by a formula specified in the statute; the road and bridge funds were paid to DeFuniak Springs in 1981, apparently pursuant to a letter from the auditor general, according to BCC minutes; no authorization or discussion of the payment of these funds was found in BCC minutes after 1981; the statute requiring the payment of funds to the city was repealed by the legislature in 1984; in 2015 the Walton County Clerk of Courts as comptroller for the county questioned the direct distribution of the road and bridge funds; Walton County Tax Collector Rhonda Skipper responded by letter in July 2015, stating that she was unable to find any authorization, statutory or otherwise, that would allow the direct distribution to continue.

Davis reported that after receiving a copy of this correspondence from Skipper, he had discussed the issue with the clerk of courts and the county finance manager and that there had been agreement that there could be no further distribution of road and bridge funds to the city without an interlocal agreement with the county to authorize such distribution. He said the city's attorney was contacted and an interlocal agreement was prepared. The proposed agreement was on the agenda.

Davis also reported that county staff had begun investigations on the possibility of recovering the unauthorized funding — and had also contacted the auditors who had performed audits for the county and the tax collector and who had not noted the direct distribution of funds.

Davis advised the commissioners that there was nothing prohibiting them from approving the interlocal agreement to continue with distribution of the funds to the city. However he emphasized that the funds would have to be distributed by their approval and not as an automatic deduction by the tax collector from county ad valorem tax collections. If approved, the interlocal agreement would formalize this funding going to the city in the future, Davis explained.

He noted that the city does collect its own ad valorem tax.

Walton County Administrator Larry Jones commented that more work may need to be done to determine county resources contained within DeFuniak Springs city limits. A number of county roads had already been identified, he told the commissioners. He suggested working with the city on this.

District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander said she would like to point out that DeFuniak Springs has been the county seat for approximately 200 years. She highlighted the importance over the years of having roads in good condition for travel by county residents to access their county government.

"I'm sorry, I think part of this is a witch hunt," Comander complained.

She reminded the commissioners that city residents also pay ad valorem taxes to the county, along with paying city ad valorem taxes and paying for their own police and fire departments.

The city has a very limited budget, Comander maintained. "They depend on this money," she said. Her recommendation was for the county to proceed with paying the road and bridge funds for this year. "We will cripple the city if we don't," she warned.

Asked for information on county roads within the city limits, Walton County Public Works Director Wilmer Stafford told the commissioners that approximately 30 such roads had so far been identified. He suggested that staff be allowed to continue with the process of identifying these roads.

District 1 Commissioner Bill Chapman commented that there is no doubt that the BCC wants to help the city as much as they can. He continued that before making a decision he would like to know the amount the city had spent for these purposes. He spoke to the need for research on the amount of funding provided since 1984.

District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows agreed on the BCC's desire to help the city, but she was also of the opinion that more research was needed.

District 2 Commissioner Cecilia Jones asked for information on any county roads that are totally under city maintenance.

A motion to table the proposed interlocal agreement to allow time for further research carried 4-1, with Comander voting no.

Copyright 2015 The DeFuniak Springs Herald, DeFuniak Springs, Florida. All Rights Reserved. This content, including derivations, may not be stored or distributed in any manner, disseminated, published, broadcast, rewritten or reproduced without express, written consent from SmallTownPapers, Inc.

Original Publication Date: November 5, 2015

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