Proposal boosts aid to rural counties

Published: Saturday, January 29, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 28, 2005 at 10:25 p.m.
JASPER - Gov. Jeb Bush outlined a proposal to give rural counties more state money and more flexibility to spend some of it after listening to residents' concerns and taking questions from students during a visit to this north Florida town.
Bush's budget proposal includes $301 million for rural counties to help pay for such things as road repairs, wastewater treatment, school construction and health care.
But he also he wants the Legislature to let counties decide how to spend about $15 million, or an average of $500,000 each for the 30 counties identified as having critical economic concerns.
"There's no strings attached on how it's spent, it's spent on the need," Bush told Hamilton County commissioners. "I don't know what y'all's needs are, but they ought to be defined by you and you should be able to have more flexibility to meet the needs."
The overall budget proposal is a $24 million increase over the current year. That's on top of a $89 million increase from the year before.
Earlier, during Bush's citizen hours at the county courthouse, 61 people waited to speak to the governor or Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings.
Melody McCoy took her son Brandon, a senior at Hamilton County High School, with her as she asked the governor to help get a flashing school zone light installed on U.S. Route 129 before and after the road that leads to the school.
"There's a sign about as big as this folder and if you're zipping along at 60 miles per hour you just don't see it," McCoy said, holding up a folder with a 300-signature petition. "You get a feeling that something bad is impending if something's not done. They've got to have something out there or they're going to have a bad accident."
The governor told McCoy he heard a similar problem during citizen hours in Baker County a few years back and helped get a light installed. That story later was used in a political ad during his 2002 re-election campaign.
Bush went by the location where she wants the signal on the way to the courthouse and acknowledged he didn't realize he was passing a school entrance.
"The good news is I'm going back that way, so I'm going to check it out," Bush said.
Bush also answered questions from a group of about 35 elementary school students on topics ranging from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test to his budget recommendation for the Medically Needy program. There was only one question he didn't readily answer.
"Are you ever going to run for president," one girl asked.
Bush frowned and said, "No comment." Bush Ieva Smidt told Bush she wanted to take advantage of a program that allows high school students to dual enroll in community colleges, but Lake City Community College told her she can't because she attends a private school just over the border in Georgia.
"Laws are typically made for broad circumstances. You may be the only person in the entire state that has this challenge," Bush told her, promising to talk with the community college and Department of Education officials to see if Smidt, a junior, could be given a waiver.
"He's capable of a lot of things, so I think he will be able to help," Smidt said after the meeting.
It was Patty Wood-Williams' second time at one of Bush's citizen hours, having visited with him in Lafayette County 13 months ago. That day she wanted to make sure airboat access to a local river wouldn't be restricted. On Friday, she met with Jennings about flood issues.
Wood-Williams, a real estate agent in Lake City, said homes in the region were flooded after last year's string of hurricanes even though they weren't in flood zones. One of her customers had to rebuild a $200,000 home that wasn't covered by flood insurance.
"Yes, we had four of them, but I saw some of this after the first one," she said before the meeting, adding that she would like the state to study why some areas were flooded that shouldn't have and try to come up solutions for the problem.
Wood-Williams said the governor's office followed up with her concerns after her last visit and was hoping more face-to-face time could help get action on this issue.
"It's like a business. If you have a boss that's easily accessible and you can discuss your problems, things run better," she said.

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