“I can’t think of any more important decision we can make."
CRAWFORDVILLE — The Triumph Gulf Coast board has agreed to hire experts to review the applications coming in for millions of dollars in oil spill damages.
The nonprofit board on Wednesday agreed to hire an economic adviser and a program administrator to help in the process. Board members want the hires made by the end of this year — and already have one selection in mind.
The board agreed to negotiate with the University of West Florida to allow professor Rick Harper, director of the university’s Office of Economic Development Engagement, to become the economic adviser to the Triumph board.
“We would pay the university,” said Don Gaetz, a Triumph board member who sits on a committee doing the search for the new hires. “We would buy from the university half of Dr. Harper’s time, and we would pay the university for that.”
Gaetz told the board and the audience that filled the Wakulla County Community Center that he has spoken with Harper, who is interested in the job.
“He had a lot to do with drafting the original (Triumph) legislation,” Gaetz said, adding Harper advised the attorney general and legal team in making the case for economic and environmental damages for the $2 billion Triumph settlement. “He’s intimately interested and involved and knowledgeable.”
Gaetz said the university also seemed interested in the proposal.
“But the university and our committee are not in any position today to recommend approval of a contract,” he said, adding that there are “still contract provisions that are outstanding.”
Pam Dana, another Triumph board member on the committee tasked with finding people to fill the new positions, said Harper would be a good choice for economic adviser.
“I think Rick Harper would be great in this capacity,” she said. “I hope it works out because I think he can hit the ground running.”
According to job descriptions approved Wednesday, the program administrator would be available to meet with prospective applicants to familiarize them with the application, evaluation, approval and performance process. The person would “triage” pre-applications, identifying projects that do or don’t meet Triumph criteria.
The administrator also would assist in developing performance agreements, monitor compliance with those agreements between Triumph and grantees, and make performance reports to the Triumph board.
The economic adviser would provide the board with ongoing advice and guidance as to economic needs, trends, futures and opportunities within the Triumph region. The person would recruit and assign evaluators for the projects, and determine economic impact and the return on investment.
Under the Triumph legislation, the board can pay up to $130,000 in annual salary for the positions — “but our intention is not to hit the cap,” Gaetz said.
Triumph board chairman Allan Bense said the hiring of a competent economic adviser and program administrator is critical.
“I can’t think of any more important decision we can make,” he said.
Bense said he had hoped these positions would have been filled by now, but he understands the need for being deliberate in this process.
“I know there are lot of you out there who are anxious and want pre-apps looked at, but we need to make sure that we have the proper folks on staff.”
Bense recommended — and the board agreed — holding a special meeting after the next regular board meeting, set for Dec. 8 in Panama City, if an agreement is not reached with Harper and the university.
The first round of pre-applications are due to the Triumph board by Nov. 15. Triumph Executive Director Susan Skelton said the board so far has received four pre-applications for the first $300 million pot of Triumph money. That pot is to be spent in the eight Northwest Florida counties most affected by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill: Bay, Escambia, Franklin, Gulf, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Walton and Wakulla.
The law requires that at least $15 million is spent in each of the eight counties. The pot is earning $330,000 a month in interest in a bank account. Another $1.2 billion is slated to come to the eight counties through 2033.
Skelton said she wouldn’t call Nov. 15 a “deadline,” but an administrative cut off date for the first round of applications to be considered. She said — and board members emphasized at the meeting — that people can continue to submit pre-applications after that date to be considered for funds.
The Bay County Commission on Tuesday agreed to forward 19 pre-applications for projects submitted by cities, government boards, private companies and nonprofits. The commission, in a 4-1 vote with commissioner Guy Tunnell dissenting, opted to not express any preference what projects it would like the Triumph board to fund.
A 30-page application is required after pre-applications.
The board also authorized hiring experts to offer consulting advice on a case-by-case basis on technical topics the economic and administrative adviser deem necessary to get input. Members also authorized spending $2,000 to hire a company to put submitted pre-applications and applications on the Triumph website.