Two Walton projects make ‘Budget Turkey’ list

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Jim Thompson @Jimtnwfdn

INLET BEACH — Two major Walton County road projects that got a combined $4 million in state funding have landed on the Florida TaxWatch Institute’s latest “Budget Turkey” list.

Each year, the TaxWatch Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization, prepares a list of projects that got state money, or attempted to get state money, outside of established channels or from inappropriate sources.

The institute is careful to note that its list is not intended as a measure of worthiness for funding. Instead, the institute said in its 2018 Budget Turkey Watch Report that the list is designed “to ensure that all appropriations using public funds receive the deliberation, debate and accountability they deserve.”

One of the two local road project appropriations that landed on the Budget Turkey list is a $2 million outlay for an underground pedestrian and bicycle crossing at the eastern intersection of U.S. Highway 98 and Walton County Road 30A.

Also on the list is a $2 million outlay for a road linking County Road 280A and U.S. Highway 331 south of Interstate 10.

The two projects are among 58 transportation projects totaling $119.7 million included in the Budget Turkey list because the money was allocated outside of the Florida Department of Transportation Work Program. According toTaxWatch, steering money to projects outside the work program “removes even the appearance of a selection process” for projects that are eventually funded.

Nonetheless, the projects are moving forward. Walton County officials are negotiating with Fort Walton Beach-based civil engineering firm Dewberry Preble-Rish to provide services for the proposed connector route. A final vote on the engineering contract could come at the County Commission’s meeting Tuesday.

The project was initially pursued by the city of DeFuniak Springs, but the county got involved last fall and will work with the Florida DOT, according to Louis Svelha, the county’s public information manager.

The exact routing of the connector road has yet to be determined, Svelha said.

As far as the pedestrian tunnel under U.S  98 at Inlet Beach, a previous state allocation of $1.5 million has been used for design work, according to Svelha. The $2 million outlay criticized by TaxWatch would be used to build the pedestrian tunnel, although it is not yet clear whether $3.5 million will cover the full cost, according to Svelha.

In a listing of state and federal transportation funding priorities for the current fiscal year, county officials note that “a significant amount of recent commercial development” on the north side of U.S. 98 at the east end of CR 30A “has begun to draw a large amount of pedestrian traffic from the south side” of the highway.

Neither county nor state law enforcement officials could say immediately Wednesday whether there had been any recent increase in pedestrian accidents in the area.

Another local project that made the Turkey Watch list because it was funded outside the state DOT work program is a $624,672 outlay for gas system upgrades along U.S. Highway 331 in DeFuniak Springs. City officials were not immediately available Wednesday to talk about the project.

Another local project not related to transportation also made the Turkey Watch list. The Okaloosa County Historical Museum Cooperative, an effort to link the various museums in the county, made the list as a result of its request for $30,000 in state funding.

TaxWatch noted that the request, like a number of similar requests from museums around the state, bypassed a Department of State grants program.

Unlike the local transportation outlays, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the Museum Cooperative’s request before he signed the budget.

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