Escambia, Santa Rosa Among Counties Claiming Victory In DJJ Dispute

April 24, 2015

Both the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice and 27 counties — including Escambia and Santa Rosa — challenging the agency are claiming victory over a judge’s ruling in a long-running dispute about the costs of detaining juvenile offenders.

Administrative Law Judge W. David Watkins on Wednesday found that some parts of a rule proposed by the department last year “constitute an invalid exercise of legislatively delegated authority.” The proposed rule deals with how costs should be split between the state and counties.

“It (Watkins’ ruling) emphasizes the need for legislative action,” said Cragin Mosteller, a spokeswoman for the Florida Association of Counties. “Once again a judge has ruled that DJJ has not done rulemaking right. In a decade, they have not been able to correctly interpret the statute.”

But department officials said Watkins’ most important finding was in their favor. That issue involves situations in which juvenile offenders commit probation violations. The state and counties have long battled about who should pay detention costs in such circumstances.

“This is because the statute simply does not address the situation where a youth commits multiple substantive law violations over time and thus has the status of both post-disposition (commitment or probation) and predisposition (detained and awaiting final court disposition on a new charge),” Watkins wrote. “The department’s interpretation that detention arising from a new law violation by a youth on probation is the responsibility of the counties is certainly one reasonable interpretation … is not clearly erroneous, and is entitled to deference.”

A 2004 law requires counties to pay “pre-disposition” costs associated with juveniles waiting for cases to be resolved in court. The department pays the costs of detaining youths whose cases have been decided — known as “post-disposition.” But the two sides have never agreed on what those terms meant. Instead, they’ve been embroiled in a series of legal battles about how to carry out the law, with the counties arguing they have been overcharged.

“We are proud of our partnership with counties as we work together to provide troubled youth with the kind of support network they need to live productive and lawful lives,” Department of Juvenile Justice spokeswoman Heather DiGiacomo wrote in an email. “For some time, the courts have been reviewing Florida’s detention cost-share statutes, and we are pleased that the courts have both affirmed the department’s position and provided all parties with greater clarity into these processes.”

“it pretty much shows it should be a partnership, pretty much 50/50,” Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson said Thursday night.

The clash stretches through several administrative hearings and the 1st District Court of Appeal, with a potential legislative compromise failing on the final day of the 2014 session.

Lawmakers again this year have tried to come up with a legislative solution. A House bill (HB 5201) would require counties to pay 57 percent of juvenile-detention costs, while the state would pick up 43 percent — not a 50-50 split sought by the counties.

The counties have long argued that their costs for juvenile detention amounted to an unfunded mandate. Watkins in 2012 ruled against the state in a rule fight, and the 1st District Court of Appeal upheld his decision.

After that appeals-court ruling, lawmakers last year considered a bill that would have created a 50-50 split. But that bill died when counties insisted on recouping $140 million for past overpayments.

Now Mosteller contends that Watkins’ ruling strengthens the counties’ case for “a fair 50-50 split with a repayment.”

“I hope this ruling will make it apparent to the Legislature that DJJ cannot interpret the statute correctly, and that we need new legislation, that DJJ has consistently through the years been haphazard in their rulemaking,” Mosteller said. “We need to move forward with a new law that gets us out of this bureaucratic mess and puts us in a position that we can better take care of the taxpayer dollars as well as the youths that need our help.”

The fate of this year’s legislation remains unclear. The House bill was approved by the Appropriations Committee in late March but has not been heard by the full House. A Senate bill (SB 1414) was approved by a subcommittee this month but has not moved further. Senate sponsor Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, has said the counties’ requests for repayments were “likely a bridge too far.”

In addition to the Florida Association of Counties, the petitioners in the case include Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, along with 25 other counties across the state. Duval County and the city of Jacksonville filed a petition to intervene, which was granted.

Thirty-five counties split juvenile-detention costs with the state. The remaining counties are considered “fiscally constrained” and are not required to contribute.

by Margie Menzel, The News Service of Florida, with contributions by NorthEscambia.com

Central Water Works Receives Over $1.5 Million For System Improvements

April 23, 2015

During an Earth Day celebration in Byrneville, USDA Rural Development presented Central Water Works with a $1.588 million check to replace existing water lines in both Florida and Alabama.

The check represented $682,300 in grant money at a $906,000 USDA 40-year loan at 2.75 percent interest.

The money will be used the replace existing lines in the utility’s service area. The first part of the project will replace all of Central Water Works’ infrastructure serving about 175 homes just outside Flomaton. Those 2 or 3-inch lines will be upgraded to at least 6-inch lines, plus fire hydrants will be installed so that every residence is within 1,000 feet of a hydrant.

In Florida, funds will be used to replace an old asbestos and cement line on Byrneville Road.

After engineering plans are completed and contracts are let, it will probably be the first of 2016 before Central customers notice any visible work beginning.

“This is something that has been needed for a long time,” Gary Welch, Central Water Works board president. “It will mean improved quality of service for customers, and, for the Alabama customers, it may mean greatly reduced fire insurance rates.”

Clothing Donations Being Accepted To Help Needy In Century Area

April 23, 2015


Clothing donations to help the needy are now being accepted at the Century Town Hall.

The clothing will be distributed May 16 at the second annual Reimagine Century event, which will also include a food giveaway, health screenings, AIDS testing, diabetes information, live music, fishing lessons from Mission Fishin’, free manicures, a laundry detergent giveaway, information from community agencies, free lunch, free haircuts, youth and teen activities and sports, a diaper giveaway and more.

Clothing donations can be dropped off at a trailer outside the Century Town Hall building.

Reimagine Century is sponsored in part by NorthEscambia.com.

Holman Prison Placed On Lockdown After Fatal Inmate Stabbing

April 22, 2015

Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore was placed on lockdown following a homicide Wednesday.

The Alabama Department of Corrections said inmate Lawrence Utley, 67, was fatally stabbed inside the facility by another inmate.

Robert Aaron Williams, 58, was detained as a suspect in the stabbing.  Williams is serving a life sentence for a 2014 murder conviction in Mobile County.

Utley had served 30 years of a life sentence for a 1985 sodomy conviction in Mobile County.

One Injured In Highway 97 Rollover Accident

April 22, 2015

One person was injured in a single vehicle crash Wednesday morning in Walnut Hill.

The driver of a GMC pickup lost control on Highway 97 just south of South Highway 99 and overturned about 8:50 a.m.. The male driver was transported by ambulance to West Florida Hospital in Pensacola with injuries that were not considered life threatening. There were no other occupants in the vehicle.

The Walnut Hill Station of Escambia Fire Rescue and Atmore Ambulance responded to the crash. The accident is under investigation by the Florida Highway Patrol; further details have not been released.

NorthEscambia.com photos, click to enlarge.

Four County Bridges In North Escambia Set For Replacement By State

April 22, 2015

The Florida Department of Transportation will replace four bridges on county roads in Escambia County. Contracts will be let in the near future after the Escambia County Commission signs off on the projects, and the commission agrees that the county will maintain the bridges following construction by the state. The bridges will be replaced at the state’s expense.

The bridges have reached a level of deterioration making them next on the FDOT’s 5-Year Work Plan.

The bridges are:

  • Highway196 (Barrineau Park Road) Bridge over Jacks Branch (between Highway 95A and Dewey Rose Lane) was constructed in 1949 and has an average daily traffic county of 537 vehicles.
  • North Highway 99 Bridge over Pine Barren Creek (located just north of Gobbler Road/Oak Grove Park) was constructed in 1955. It has an average daily traffic count of 1,234 vehicles.
  • Sandy Hollow Road Bridge over Sandy Hollow Creek (traffic count and construction date not available).
  • Highway 99A Bridge (Arthur Brown Road) over Boggy Creek (near Walnut Hill Baptist Church) was constructed in 1969 and has an average daily traffic county of 537.

A construction start date has not yet been announced for the bridge replacement projects.

Pictured top: A steel truss was installed to support the bridge over Pine Barren Creek on North Highway 99 in Bratt in early 2011. Otherwise, the 60-year old bridge is supported by wood pilings. Pictured below: The North Highway 99 bridge over Pine Barren Creek. NorthEscambia.com photos, click to enlarge.

Three Molino Park Students Win Florida DEP Earth Day Poster Contest

April 22, 2015

The Molino Park Elementary School students were the winners of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Northwest District Earth Day Poster Contest. In celebration of Earth Day, the department invited fourth and fifth grade students from Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties to creatively illustrate the importance of protecting Florida’s beautiful natural environment: air, water, land and ecosystems.

Winners were:

Escambia County

  • First Place: Carolyn Wilbanks – Molino Park Elementary
  • Second Place: Cody Chavers – Molino Park Elementary
  • Third Place: Sarah Sconiers – Molino Park Elementary

Santa Rosa County

  • First Place: Gwyneth Jackson – Gulf Breeze Elementary
  • Second Place: Sean Johnson – Pea Ridge Elementary
  • Third Place: Lindsey Castor – Bagdad Elementary

Pictured top: DEP Escambia County Earth Day poster contest winners, all from Molino Park Elementary, are (L-R) Carolyn Wilbanks, first; Cody Chavers, second; and Sara Sconiers, third. Their posters are below. Courtesy photos for NorthEscambia.com, click to enlarge.

First place Escambia County poster by Carlolyn Wilbanks (above).

Second place Escambia County poster by Cody Chavers (above).

Third place Escambia County poster by Sara Sconiers (above).