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HOLMES AND WASHINGTON COUNTIES — Senator George Gainer (R-Panama City) and Representative Brad Drake (R-Eucheeanna) paid visits to Holmes and Washington Counties to hear public comment on multiple issues during delegation sessions in each county Jan. 30.

Local agencies and citizens brought forward both new and familiar concerns for consideration in this year's state legislative session as proposals are formed for future legislation impacting municipalities and taxing districts. Most of the requests for funding were centered on education, health and public facilities.

"It is our goal, hope and dream that we will have students ready to learn," said Suzan Gage, Program Development Director at Early Learning Coalition of Northwest Florida.

The Coalition is one of many entities unable to fully satisfy the demand for services amid budget cuts. The organization currently serves 132 children in Holmes County from low-income working families with its School Readiness Program and has a waiting list of 60 children waiting for additional funding the Coalition needs. In Washington County, the Coalition serves 182 children with 66 on the waiting list.

The Coalition helped the local economy last year by putting $350,000 into the hands of childcare providers in Holmes County and $644,000 in Washington County. Gage urged Gainer and Drake to seize all opportunities to keep funds flowing to vital early childhood education programs.

"That's one of those places where I'm asking you to think long and hard, because we're not just impacting an individual child – we're impacting a community and family," said Gage.

Washington County School Superintendent Joseph Taylor echoed the need for public education funding. Taylor said the district had been in a poor position to receive funding due to declining school enrollment, testing challenges and a declining tax base.

Other programs routinely work across county lines to supplement school and career readiness services. Charles Mayberry of the Panhandle Library Access Network said cooperatives are important because of the 'tremendous bang for the buck' communities gain from funding given to public library services.

Washington County Public Library recently received its largest amount ever of $210,000 from state grants to support highly utilized library facilities and programs. Executive Director Renae Roundtree said over 52,000 books and other media were checked out last year.

In addition to education, public facilities in both counties need a boost.

District 2 Washington County Commissioner and Chairman Charles Kent pled with Drake and Gainer to help the county acquire funding to continue critical repairs to the Agricultural Center, a popular venue for community meetings and events.

Holmes County asked the state to assist with $750,000 to begin funding what's expected to be a one-time $3 million to $5 million dollar investment to plan, design and construct new facilities to house public service offices.

Tami Ray, Director at Tamco Meridian, told delegates county offices would need to relocate by the end of the year because Holmes County Courthouse does not have adequate space to accommodate inmates for court appearances.

Healthcare funding was another proverbial issue brought to delegates.

JoAnn Baker, Administrator at Doctors Memorial Hospital, thanked Drake for past support of Holmes County's critical access hospital, adding that DMH is able to operate for now but still faces immense financial pressure to serve its rural population.

"Most of our patients are Medicare patients, and they can't travel far," said Baker.

Existing policies are another hurdle to local healthcare service providers.

Christopher Lauen, Coordinator of the Holmes County Health Department Tobacco Prevention Program, asked Drake and Gainer to reevaluate state policies trumping local health authorities.

"We're limited in what we can do in the local level because of preemptive state law," said Lauen. "Local policy makers are not permitted to adopt laws for outdoor areas where people gather and are exposed to second-hand smoke."

Much discussion was held on another health disparity compounded by complex social issues – addiction.

"It touches 23 million yearly and that number is rapidly growing," said Amy Cooper with Faith on the Beach, Inc. & Helping Hands.

Cooper found a new mission in life helping others put their lives back together.

Cooper shared how in 2011, she sat across from the desk from her probation officer as a convicted felon asking for advice on how to start over and be successful on the heels of addiction and incarceration. The officer suggested very little guidance outside of naming local charities offering fragmented services.

Faith on the Beach aims to offer wrap-around services for women experiencing addiction and alcohol abuse.

"Alcohol and drugs are just a symptom of this disease. Eighty percent of all addicts and alcoholics arrive full blown into addiction because of something that happened in their childhood or early teens that was never properly addressed," said Cooper.

Timothy Carter, a co-founder of Helping Hands, highlighted the lack of drug treatment and recovery facilities in rural communities with growing drug epidemics. Gainer and Drake agreed society needs a better model for helping people maintain sobriety.

"Opiate overdose is killing more people than car wrecks," said Gainer, also noting how prevalent drug abuse is inside of prison facilities.

Gainer said citizens would see legislation this year aimed at fighting drug abuse and more would be done to help people become self-sufficient after incarceration.

"We're not doing our job until recidivism has reduced itself to zero," said Drake.