Commissioners spar over funding for dredging St. Lucie Inlet

Finding the funding to dredge the St. Lucie Inlet, vital to the health of the Martin County marine industry, thus, to the wider economy, has been like walking on ice floes–too much uncertainty to know the path ahead.

The stress shows at the edges of exchanges among Martin County Commissioners, who must determine how best to fund the work, how much should be done now, how much later, which procedure to employ, and how to ensure future funding.

Commissioner Sarah Heard, District 4, remains adamant that the county should not usurp the federal government’s responsibility “to take care of their inlet,” she said, at the Oct. 25 county commission meeting. Federal funds have underwritten the majority of the cost of dredging the federally designated inlet for the past several decades, but they’ve previously come to the state as earmarks to other legislation, now outlawed.

“We’ve been to Washington. We’ve been to Tallahassee, more than once” said Ed Ciampi, commission chairman. “We talked to the Army Corps. We’ve talked to the governor. I don’t know what you want us to do, Commissioner Heard. The federal government is not going to give us money just because we’re whining about it.”

The funding cobbled together for an immediate response to the shoaling sand that threatens to close the inlet includes $1.25 million from the Corps of Engineers, $2.9 million from the state, and $4 million from county funds. An additional $300,000 will come from funds that had been allocated to the proposed Jensen Beach boat mooring project from county boat license fees.

“I do not support using funds that qualify us for grants,” said Commissioner Patrick Hayes. “For every dollar we put into that fund, we get an additional two or three dollars.”

Ciampi joined Heard and Commissioner Ed Fielding in the vote to support the measure since the fund is replenished each year from annual fees, but with the stipulation that at least $50,000 be left in the fund, rather than “sweeping it clean.”

The funding solution will be short-lived since $8 million is the estimated cost to remove the minimum amount of sand, 300,000 cubic yards, to keep the inlet open for two years as more research is done to find a long-term solution.

Commissioner Heard has insisted that the county not proceed with any dredging until funding for a “full dredging” is found, since the greatest portion of the cost is the equipment set-up. Additional cubic yards of sand, then, are much more economical to remove with the equipment already in place.
Hayes, Ciampi and Smith agree that “ideally” the county should not dredge without full funding, but consider the current situation an emergency that arose because of the unexpected loss of federal funding.

Hayes suggested that the county should investigate borrowing the additional funds from its reserves, set aside to respond to emergencies such as hurricanes, to increase the number of cubic yards removed, rather than settling for the minimum. “You absolutely do not borrow money for maintenance,” Heard said. “You borrow only for capital projects.” Hayes disagreed in this particular instance. “This is an emergency, no different than if a storm had come,” he said, with no advance warning, and without dredging, the inlet will be unnavigable within months.

Bidding currently is underway for dredging either through hydraulic or mechanical means. The mechanical is less expensive, but takes longer, and the state requires completion by May 1 in order to protect sea turtle eggs on the Jupiter Island beaches that will receive the recycled sand.

The bids will be opened Dec. 5. If funds are borrowed to remove additional cubic yards of sand, and the chosen method is mechanical, then the time may be insufficient to meet the deadline. “A lot of things depend on other things,” Donaldson told the commissioners, who will take up the dredging issue again at its meeting Dec. 6.