As 2017 draws to a close, it is good to reflect on the accomplishments of the past year as my term as Chairman of the Okaloosa Board of County Commissioners comes to an end, and as we look forward to the New Year and the future goals of the county.

As 2017 draws to a close, it is good to reflect on the accomplishments of the past year as my term as Chairman of the Okaloosa Board of County Commissioners comes to an end, and as we look forward to the New Year and the future goals of the county. It has been a busy year in Okaloosa County and I thought it would be helpful to provide a year-end review of your local government in action.

Airports

The airports in Okaloosa have had a hugely successful year, and the newly commissioned Aviation Board has been a welcome addition to overseeing the fastest-growing airport in the Southeast: Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport (VPS).

We exceeded 1 million passengers for the first time in the history of VPS. The number of direct cities increased from seven to 24 with a daily flight to Washington, D.C., beginning in May. Expect more success as we move into the New Year. And have you noticed the new signage when you leave VPS? It clearly states Shalimar, Fort Walton Beach or Crestview to avoid the confusion of which road to take to reach your intended destination.

The new Eglin Fire Station was completed adjacent to the runway at VPS and built with federal grants and manned with Eglin personnel. This is a tremendous win for our community and another outstanding example of our strong joint-use partnership with the military. On that note, we received a total of $4.9 million in FAA and FDOT grants for fiscal year 2017.

The County also entered into a new contract with Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office for airport security and we thank our officers for their service to keep us all safe.

Finally, the new air traffic control tower at Destin Executive Airport, named in honor of Lt. Gen. Leroy Manor (ret.), was completed to improve safety with the increasing number of flights taking off from our southernmost airport in the County.

Roads

Traffic congestion along major roadways in Okaloosa continues to be the most important issue facing the County Commission, in my opinion. Unfortunately, with limited dollars and very expensive road construction costs, we have many competing interests for roads. With that said, the Okaloosa Board of County Commissioners is unified to find solutions to the road congestion and progress is being made even though it is slower than we all would prefer.

In North Okaloosa County, the County has begun acquiring rights-of-way along PJ Adams for expansion of this road, from two lanes to four lanes, from Highway 85 to Interstate 10. We should see construction of this important project begin in 2018. Additionally, the County has initiated efforts to work with FDOT for installation of a new interchange with I-10. Furthermore, the County has partnered with FDOT, and I and County personnel are coordinating with Eglin AFB personnel, to discuss concepts for an eastern bypass route as well.

Additional projects in North Okaloosa include the completion of the bridge crossing on Okaloosa Lane, as well as the paving of Eagle Way and Falcon Way in the Pines and Triple Lakes subdivisions east of Crestview. The design of Foy Shaw Road, which will provide a new route into Bob Sikes Airport, was also completed and is currently in the permitting stage. Improvements to Fairchild Road were also completed this past year allowing for fluid movement of goods and personnel around the Bob Sikes Airport.

In east Destin, FDOT has started a construction project that will widen a portion of U.S. 98 from four lanes to six, and Hurlburt AFB command staff has teamed with FDOT, Okaloosa County and School Board representatives to initiate improvements along west Highway 98 that will enhance motorist safety and reduce travel times.

Crews have also completed roadway overlay and striping projects throughout the County to improve roadway conditions and overall transportation safety.

Funding for these road construction projects has been made possible by utilizing local gas taxes and state transportation grants, and application has been made for Triumph funding to accelerate the road construction work schedule.

Public Works

The construction of Silver Oaks Park in the Crestview area was completed this year, as was the storm water pipe replacement on Monahan Drive. Storm water capacity improvements to Gap Creek Pond in the Lovejoy Road area were finished as well.

The new Okaloosa County Courthouse construction is well underway, and is currently scheduled to be completed next summer. As you can clearly see with the current state of construction, this building will be the focal point of downtown Crestview, and should spur further downtown development. And best of all, this entire project was built without additional tax dollars, utilizing our outstanding bond rating and the rent moneys saved with the completion of the County government building in Shalimar last year.

Administrative

Your BCC submitted the County’s first round of Triumph projects to the Triumph Gulf Coast Board. The range of projects includes: PJ Adams expansion, Rasberry Road Connector, Bridge to Bridge Bike Path, Forensic Hospital Diversion Pilot project, East Bypass around Crestview, Fish Aggregating Devices in Gulf waters, Bob Sikes Treatment Plant Sprayfield Expansion, Expansion of Water and Sewer Mains East on Hwy 90.

We have a new Restore and Grants Division within the County Administrator’s Office to handle the volume of work from the multi-year Pot 1 funding and Triumph requests. On that note we received approval from the U.S. Treasury for the Implementation Plan for the BP Oil Spill settlement and are scheduled to fund in excess of $6 million from Pot 1 dollars for projects within Okaloosa County.

Environment

The beautiful Veteran’s Park on Okaloosa Island adjacent to the Convention Center has been set aside as a rookery for birds, pollinator garden for monarch butterflies, and walking trails to keep some of old Florida alive and pristine as Okaloosa continues to develop. Take time to visit this sanctuary of nature.

The County, utilizing TDC funds, will build three additional public access ways to the beaches on Okaloosa Island. These access ways will include additional public parking spaces along with restroom facilities that may be used by the general public. Another Okaloosa Island project included the renegotiation of the lease for the Okaloosa Island Pier which resulted in significant upgrades and updates to the iconic structure.

The Tourist Development Department also committed to using bed tax revenues to create the Choctawhatchee Bay Estuary Coalition. Bed tax revenues increased 8.1 percent over last year ($19,534,276 collected in total) indicating how robust our Okaloosa tourism industry continues to be. We have truly been discovered and we need to commit our community to preserving the beauty of our area for tourists and residents alike.

Health

Okaloosa County received the Platinum Award, the highest award possible, recognizing the efforts the County makes to provide for a healthy community.

EMS

The Emergency Medical Services Division of the Public Safety Department received national accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation of Ambulance Services and received the Heart Saver Gold Standard Award from the American Heart Association.

Water & Sewer

Our Water & Sewer Department is to be commended for completing the joint water main project on Eglin AFB to service the new fire station. OCWS is near completion of the expansion to the Arbennie Pritchett wastewater treatment facility and recently completed construction of the new 500,000-gallon Blueberry Elevated Water Tank north of Crestview. This is not very sexy stuff but a necessary function of a vibrant community. Our hats are off to OCWS staff who have been able to keep from increasing your monthly water and sewer bills.

Corrections

Our jail is an old facility but is well maintained. As our community has grown, our jail has become overcrowded. We are cognizant that we are outgrowing this facility, and that eventually we will need to address these capacity issues. To that end, the County purchased 6.2 acres of land adjacent to the county jail for future use.

The Legislature named us as one of three pilot projects for a mental health care unit in our jail facility. In Florida, our jails have unfortunately become our mental health facilities. Many of our inmates with mental issues are repeatedly jailed for petty crimes when they could be better stabilized on medications and safely returned to the community at a great cost savings to the community. We hope to stand up a Forensic Mental Health Facility as part of the Corrections system in the next year. This model has worked well in other areas of the country and could be a model for the state of Florida in the years to come.

Conclusion

It has been a successful and productive year in the County. We continue to have one of the lowest tax rates in the state, but also have many issues facing us as we are no longer a small county. We now have a population of 200,000 people, and with growth comes new challenges, but the Board of County Commissioners is committed to common sense limited government to meet these challenges.

I have been so blessed by the opportunity to serve as your Chairman in Okaloosa County this year. As every leader comes to understand — whether in business, military or government — great things can only be accomplished when you have the right people working together as a team. You, the citizens of our great county, have the right people on this team, including the many volunteers who serve the County on boards such as the Aviation and Tourism Development Boards, dedicated employees in County Administration, Department Directors, and throughout our various County agencies and departments.

And most especially I would like to thank the efforts and expertise of my fellow County Commissioners — Vice Chairman Graham Fountain, Kelly Windes, Nathan Boyles and Trey Goodwin — who have worked with me to serve you in our County government.

Thank you for the privilege of serving as your County Commissioner.

Carolyn Ketchel is the Chairman of Okaloosa County for 2017. She has served in this office since 2014.