The South Walton Turtle Watch Group was founded in 1995 by Freeport resident Sharon Maxwell to help save the endangered sea turtles that come up on the local shores to lay their eggs.

In the beginning it was just Maxwell, her husband and one friend who walked the beaches documenting the nests they found.

"We did it all," Maxwell said. "But we were younger then. We paid for things ourselves and got into construction dumpsters to get wood for stakes, anyway we could, and we asked for donations."

But over the past 21 years, the organization has grown, and so has its budget.

2006 was the first year the organization approached the Walton County Board of County Commissioners to request funding for its growing organization and was granted $95,000. The item was again approved at last week's meeting, granting $85,000 for expenses for the coming season.

For the past four years the Walton County Commission has given SWTW $85,000 to cover its expenses, including a stipend for Maxwell and her area coordinators.

The 2017 contract for sea turtle monitoring on Panama City Beach is a sliding scale between $63,440 and $74,180 depending on the services utilized, said Kennard Watson, PCB Turtle Watch director, but he said beaches are different. He has 12 employees and 15 volunteers to monitor his 18 miles of beach. Watson's salary is $20,000. 

And Okaloosa County's George Gray is allotted $47,000 to do turtle watch. He said he and his daughter are the only ones eligible to do the walks. They also take groups of 20 out each week during turtle season to educate the public about sea turtles.

As a 501©3 organization, SWTW is required to submit their financial statements and other information, including salaries of directors, officers and key employees, to the public.

According to the most recent 990 form filed with the IRS in 2015, Maxwell claimed $18,000 for 40 hours of work per week; her treasurer was paid $3,390 for 10 hours work per week; and two coordinators were paid $6,500 for 10 hours per week and $13,000 for 15 hours work per week respectively.

"Last year we paid four area coordinators, myself, and a vendor interaction person. I will some day figure out my hourly rate but I think it is probably about 10 cents an hour," said Maxwell. "The state requires a lot from each permit holder/organization and does not pay for any of this."

Jason Cutshaw with the Walton County Tourist Development Council said exact details about the SWTW spending plan for the coming year have not been received yet.

According to the 2015 form 990, SWTW declared a total revenue of $89,910.

Their salaries and employee benefits were $52,454, and professional fees and payments to independent contractors were $640, with other expenses of $17,602 for total expenses of $70,696, leaving an excess of $19,214.

Their declared cash, savings, and investments at the start of the year were $57,072, and at year's end $76,621. Net assets were $76,860.

For the 2017-2018 fiscal year of Sea Turtle Monitoring Services, Crenshaw said SWTW will be required to prepare and submit to the county for approval invoices for the services rendered. Invoices for services will then be paid in accordance with the Florida Prompt Payment Act.

The invoices are to be accompanied by a report identifying the nature and progress of the work performed, including the number of nests identified and the number relocated. The report shall show a summary of expenses and fees with an accrual of the total fees billed and credits for portions paid previously.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issues the permits and requires that walkers take a day class in Panama City before the season begins, and walkers must attend this class every other year.

Maxwell holds two permits. Most recently 25 people were listed on one permit who did most of the work associated with marking, documenting, and digging nests, and 40-50 on the walkers permit.

"The training is a cost to send people to," said Maxwell, "as is the permit holders meeting, the Sea Turtle Eastern Regional Meeting, and the international meetings each year. There are dues, supplies to purchase for strandings, nest marking supplies, and official Turtle Watch shirts and hats we all wear. We have to have insurance, office supplies and equipment. We do volunteer appreciation breakfasts at the end of the year, and some reimbursement for cell phones for the vendor program. We keep educational supplies on hand to give out and we have one big program on education each year. We have done six different PSA films that we give away."

Maxwell, her coordinators and volunteers hit the sand at daylight every morning between May 1 and October 1 to search for sea turtle tracks.