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No state millions for Vero beaches

(Week of February 3, 2011)

Indian River County has missed out on a $6 million cost-sharing grant from the state for the Sector 3 north beach restoration project, and is unlikely to ever see the hoped-for funds.

While this current round of beach renourishment that is about to get underway is fully funded through proceeds from the 1 cent sales tax, the tourist tax and a $4.7 million grant from the Sebastian Inlet Taxing District, the lack of state funds places further sand replenishment in future years in jeopardy.

The county applied for the state funding when it was told it had qualified for consideration. However, officials have been left to compete for a dwindling supply of cash against other beach projects around the state.

“I think it will be an uphill battle because the state doesn’t seem to have a lot of extra money right now,” said Indian River County Budget Director Jason Brown.

The state money for beach restoration cost-sharing was allotted through documentary stamp revenues from real estate transactions, but with declining revenues, the state has been holding back on the cash it had allotted for the program.

“Originally (the state) had a dedicated funding source, based on document stamps of $30 million going into the Florida beaches program,” said County Coastal Engineer James Gray. “However, due to the downturn, that pool of money is becoming smaller and smaller and they are unable to fund as many projects.”

Commissioner Peter O’Bryan, who serves as the liaison for the Beach & Shore Preservation Advisory Committee, said the county recognized last year it would likely be footing the bill for the project outside of the money from the Sebastian Inlet Taxing District.

“We knew a year ago that the state had very little money available for beach projects and that in the state ranking system, ones that had federal funds to go along with them would be given a higher priority,” he said.

The state ranks funding for beach restoration projects on a 100-point scale and the county received 29 points for the Sector 3 restoration. County staff has requested a review from the state, claiming the project was undercounted on the basis of expected project performance and use of innovative technology -- namely employing upland sand rather than offshore dredging.

The state currently has allocated just $6.8 million of the funds for all qualified beach projects.

“According to James Gray at the last meeting, in order for our project with our points rating to get anything, the pool would have to be about $40 million,” said Michael Ochsner, the Town of Indian River Shores appointee to the beach preservation committee.

Gray pointed out that the county has up to three years after the project is completed to apply for the funds and remains hopeful that their ranking will improve in the meantime.

Brown said at one point in the budgeting process, the county was estimating construction costs of $17.4 million for using dredged sand, and the county could have faced a budget gap if the state money had not come in.

The construction costs came in considerably lower, in the $7 to $8 million range, when the bid requests were opened. Ranger Construction was awarded the project and with cost increases due to the need for extra sand and more rigorous testing requirements, it will be paid $10.3 million or $15.66 per cubic yard to replenish the 6.6 miles of beach.

Great Lakes Dredge, which the county had used to pump sand from the ocean floor for projects near Sebastian Inlet and Castaway Cove, made an $8.9 million offer. That bid was made before the need for an extra 100,000-plus cubic yards of sand was discovered when it was determined the plans were based on out-of-date maps.

“We thought we were going to have a real funding gap, but the bid came in better than we expected,” Brown said.

However, in these tight budgetary times, funding for future beach restoration projects could be in jeopardy without help from the state.

The next beach replenishment project under consideration is Sector 5 from Tracking Station south to the city of Vero Beach.

“I think Sector 5 is pretty close to impossible,” Ochsner said.  “The fact is that there is not going to be any money coming from anywhere.”

But in terms of the current $14.4 million project, the funds have been allocated in the county budget.
“We have funds budgeted through tourist tax, one cent sales tax and  the $4.7 million that the Sebastian Inlet District contributed to the cost of the project,” O’Bryan said.