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W_-_iveyHIGH SPRINGS – After less than six months, the City of High Springs is on the hunt for a city attorney yet again.  On Wednesday, July 11, Ray Ivey of the Law Offices of Scruggs & Carmichael, P.A. in Gainesville announced his resignation from the post as the High Springs city attorney.

In an email to commissioners, Ivey seemed to point to the city’s scheduling of frequent meetings as a chief reason for stepping down.

“Because I am concerned about my ability to attend all of the additional meetings that are necessary to accomplish City business, as well as the volume of work (which exceeds what I anticipated) as a result of the meetings, I must regretfully resign as City Attorney,” Ivey wrote in the email.

Although the commission’s regular commission meetings are scheduled just twice monthly, the second and fourth Thursday of each month, the commission has been meeting considerably more frequently than that.  Between commission meetings, special commission meetings, emergency commission meetings, joint commission meetings, workshops and Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) meetings, the commission has met as many as a dozen times in one month.  Many of those meetings have lasted as long as five hours or more.

Ivey is just one in a long line of officials to part ways with the City over the last several months.

Former High Springs City Attorney Thomas DePeter resigned Jan. 13 when it became apparent that the majority of the commission intended to replace him in the ensuing weeks.

When pitching his firm to the commission in January, Ivey proposed a rate of $50 per hour up to 80 hours per month with no retainer or minimum required and additional time available at a negotiated rate.  Also topping the list for attorney’s being considered earlier this year was Brent E. Baris, P.A. of High Springs.  Baris proposed a rate of $100 per hour with an effective retainer or minimum of $3,000 monthly for 30 hours of services.

Ivey said he would continue to serve until commissioners hire a new city attorney.  When that will be is not yet clear.

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HIGH SPRINGS – In a heated and contentious emergency commission meeting held Tuesday, July 17, High Springs commissioners narrowly passed a measure that pushes forward a charter amendment, which would place a $1 million cap on borrowing by the City.

The amendment would first require two public hearings and approval by commissioners before it could be placed on the November ballot for voter approval.

As it is currently proposed, the charter amendment would prevent the City from borrowing more than $1 million unless there is a natural disaster or four of five commissioners approve a referendum, which would then require voter approval and the debt must be paid back within five years.

Vice-Mayor Bob Barnas said the move for a charter amendment is a way to reign in borrowing by the City.

Commissioner Sue Weller said she was concerned that the $1 million was arbitrary and that the amendment would tie the hands of the City in the foreseeable future.

Weller cited a countywide transportation tax initiative, for which the City has agreed it would make certain roadway improvements totaling $3-5 million if the tax passes in November.  Those improvements would be funded by the taxes, but would potentially require upfront funding through a bond.  But, Weller said she feared the proposed charter amendment would prevent the commission from moving ahead with its promises.

Defending the amendment, Commissioner Linda Gestrin said the changes would “give the taxpayers more say in what goes on.”

She pointed to the first three phases of the City’s sewer system, which she says has cost some $8 million.

Commissioner Scott Jamison vehemently opposed the move, saying it was a way to curtail the sewer.

Although he agreed the concern over the debt is legitimate, he said the reasoning of some commissioners didn’t pass muster.

“You make the comment if you don’t have the money you shouldn’t borrow it, and yet we just put a couple hundred thousand dollars into something we don’t have the money for,” Jamison said, referencing a proposed in-house police dispatch service that is expected to cost the City an additional $150,000 annually.

“This [amendment] handcuffs future commissions and takes even more away from them,” he said, adding that it meant “less authority for commissioners in the future and less ability to do their jobs.”

High Springs resident Joyce Hallman was in favor of the amendment saying, “I urge you to go forward with this ordinance.”  She disagreed with Commissioners Jamison and Weller, adding “The Charter gives too much power to the commission.”

Others, however, stood in opposition to Commissioner Gestrin and Vice-Mayor Barnas.  Resident and former High Springs City Attorney Thomas DePeter worried that the push for the amendment was too rushed.  He pointed to inconsistencies and contradictions within the proposed referendum, adding, “It’s not well drafted.”

DePeter also agreed with concerns raised by Commissioner Weller about the process by which the proposed charter amendment came to be, including calling an emergency meeting to push the amendment ordinance forward.

Weller urged her fellow commissioners to allow a Charter Review Committee to oversee the process and develop possible amendments, as is called for in the City’s Charter.

Mayor Dean Davis, Vice Mayor Barnas and Commissioner Gestrin voted in favor of moving ahead to get the ordinance on the November ballot.  Commissioners Weller and Jamison opposed the move.

Despite the commission’s decision to hold the first of at least two public hearings on the matter on July 19, laws regulating public notices and public hearings may have put a kink in their plans.  There appears to be a discrepancy with the earliest possible dates on which the public hearings can be held while still meeting ballot deadlines.

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Cooling off in the scorching summer heat

W_-_SplashPark_DSCF6351_copy

L-R: Logan, 2, Jordan, 5, Kennedy, 1, and father Chris Marlo of Old Town are regular visitors and find a welcome respite from soaring temperatures at Alachua’s splash park.

ALACHUA – With temperatures reaching well into the 90s, it seems the place to cool down from the scorching summer heat at Alachua’s Splash Park.

Each week, hundreds of children are catching a break and splashing through the various water features at the park, now that summer is in full swing.

“Right now, we’re seeing about 500 children per week at the splash park, with the highest numbers during the weekends,” Alachua Recreation Director Hal Brady said Wednesday afternoon.

Brady said the park has been staying busy every day, including weekends.  And fun doesn’t begin in the blazing afternoon heat.  “The water comes on at 9 a.m. and turns off at 6 p.m., seven days a week,” said Brady.

These days, it can be tough to come by summer activities that don’t burn a hole through the wallets of parents.  Consider that a single-day pass to Universal Orlando’s water park is more than $71 plus tax, and admission to either of Disney’s water parks is nearly $95.

For families looking for fun ways to beat the heat without hanging the plastic in their wallets out to melt, there are plenty of places to check out right here in Alachua County.

The splash park at the Hal Brady Recreation Complex is an easy pick for those looking to get out of the house without overheating, overspending or overdriving.  Just a minute’s drive from downtown Alachua at 14300 NW 146th Terrace, admission to the splash park comes at a cheap price – free.

High Springs mother Andrea Sowards has already become a fan of the splash park this year.  She visited about a month ago and again on the afternoon of Wednesday, July 11.  Sowards brought her sons, three-year-old Aiden, and two-year-old, Collin, to cool off.

“We like coming here because it’s nearby,” Sowards said.

Rose Fennel, of Gainesville, brought her three daughters to enjoy the splash park Wednesday.  Fennell said she discovered the park one day when she picked her husband up from the Dollar General Distribution center and the couple enjoyed a lunch at the Hal Brady Recreation Complex.

“We saw the splash park and all of the children having fun and I thought it would be great to bring my girls down here to enjoy it, too,” said Fennell.  After a couple of hours at the park on Wednesday, Fennell said she was ready to go, but would be back again.

Some people cooling off in the park traveled from much farther away than High Springs or Gainesville.  Old Town, Fla. resident and father of three, Chris Marlo, has brought his children to park several times.  Marlo said he heard about the park through news coverage in years past.  Although the drive from his house is roughly 45 minutes, he said he’s come to the park nearly a half-dozen times over the years.

“This is a safe, good environment with good people,” Marlo cited as one of the reasons he continues returning with his children to the spray park.

The park features a water tent, water dumping bucket brigade, water bars and water jets of many kinds including water spouts, bubblers, geysers and fountains.

Surrounding all the action is ample grass and a few picnic tables shaded by trees, beyond the range of any splashing or spraying. A high chain-link fence with a childproof gate encloses the entire area.

The splash park is open seven days a week in the summer from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., but hours may vary if someone reserves it.

The splash park was built about four years ago.  City of Alachua officials hope to expand the size of the spray park to roughly double the pad and features.

If there is a craving for a pool to jump into, one can be found at the Westside Recreation Center in Gainesville.

Commonly referred to as Westside Park, the center is located at 1001 NW 34th Street.  The facility features the 50-meter H. Spurgeon Cherry pool, diving boards and diving towers, a “splash pad” and an “aqua slide.”

Through Sunday, the park opens daily at noon.  Starting Monday, Aug. 22, the park will open at 3 p.m. on weekdays.

Admission for adults is $3.85, and $2.45 for children ages 3 to 17 and for seniors 55 and up.

Gainesville is also home to two other public pools, the Northeast Pool, at 1100 NE 14th Street, and Mickle Pool, at 1717 SE 15th Street.  All three pools in Gainesville are staffed with lifeguards.

Brady said the splash park in Alachua is already rented for birthdays and other celebrations on Saturday mornings from 10 a.m. until noon through Sept. 22.  Although not as frequently, the park has been rented during the same times on Sundays, too.

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ARCHER –The City of Archer sewage project is at a standstill until the request to increase the City’s grant award is considered by the State in October.

The City conducted a door-to-door survey to identify issues that might improve its grant score. It will be submitted in the next few weeks, and if approved could close the $2 million to $2.5 million funding gap.

Former Archer City Manager John Glanzer is helping the City as a temporary employee until a new city manager is hired.

“We’re really kind of in a holding pattern right now waiting to see what will happen in October with our request for an increase in grant award from the State,” Glanzer said. “Once we know that information then decisions can be made, as far as how to move forward from that point.”

After submitting a preliminary engineering report and environmental study in October 2011 to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s State Revolving Fund, the City was awarded a $2.7 million grant toward the project. The grant has a 120-day timeline for the City to establish the balance of funding for the project.

The total sewer project will cost approximately $11 million, according to Archer Interim City Manager John Mayberry.

“Until we close the funding gap it’s not in the best interest of the City to move forward with the Rural Development loan at this time,” Glanzer said. “We really need to finalize what is the max number of dollars we can get, grant money wise, from the State and that will more or less identify what the loan on that will be.”

Those are unknown answers that will not be answered until this fall, he said, but funding will be through the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development agency.

Building the sewage system to replace the 50-year-old septic tanks in Archer has been a decade-long process.

Archer Mayor Frank Ogborn said they’ve had to work around the constraints of the federal budget cycles and the process is moving as fast as possible.

“We as a City commission understand that we are under a deadline. We have to be under construction or we’ll have to pay that loan back,” Ogborn said. “No one is more understanding of that than we are.”

In the door-to-door survey, there were open sewage found in backyards and septic tanks that were not properly maintained.

Ogborn said the sewage system would benefit Archer by attracting more businesses.

Glazer believes there is a cost for homeowners who use a septic system despite the nonexistence of a monthly fee.

“The reality is if you own a septic system a lot of people get the mistaken idea, ‘Well I flush the toilet and nothing happens so it must be working fine,’ ” Glazer said, “and they never really have their septic system looked at or maintained unless a problem develops that they actually see.”

“But that doesn’t mean the septic system is operating properly,” he said.

Glanzer said another issue that’s affecting the sewer project is that Congress hasn’t passed the budget for USDA.

“USDA Rural Development is restricted because there’s no budget,” he said.

“The funds that are available, not just for the City of Archer but municipalities throughout the United States, are restricted because USDA doesn’t know how much money they’re going to have.”

The U.S. House Agricultural Committee released a Farm Bill draft July 5 that plans to cut spending by $3.5 billion a year. The current Farm Bill ends Sept. 30.

“USDA is very conservative about who they loan money to and grants they give, so that hurts the small municipalities,” he said.

Glanzer is optimistic that the project will be completed in the next year or two if the grant scores are approved by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

“If the community does not move forward with it and you have a community that is strictly on the septic system, the ability for that City to grow is going to be severely restricted.”

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NEWBERRY – Discussion concerning Newberry’s fire assessment rate began on Monday, but with only three commissioners in attendance, the conversation was short lived.

Alternate Chair Pro-tempore Jordan Marlowe, Commissioner Joe Hoffman and Commissioner Lois Forte passed a resolution to set the preliminary residential fire assessment rate at $124 for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

City staff recommended this rate because it would allow the commission to lower the fire assessment rate when the other commissioners are in attendance. The rate can be brought down, but can not be brought back up, City Manager Keith Ashby explained.

Currently the fire assessment is set at $75. Two years ago the commission passed a resolution to keep the fire assessment rate between $75 and $124.

“I do not want the City of Newberry to lose their fire department,” Forte said. “And if it means raising our assessment up a little bit to keep our fire department, I’m all in favor for raising it a little bit.”

Hoffman said that if the commission plans on raising the fire assessment rate, it should consider lowering the mileage rate to compensate. If the commission wanted to raise taxes overall, the matter would require more commissioners in attendance.

Marlowe proposed that in the future, the assessment fee be based on square footage of the residential house instead of a flat fee, which makes it a type of regressive tax.

“It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me that if I’ve got a 1,200-square-foot house, I’m paying the same thing that someone who has a 3,000-square-foot house is paying to get a service,” he said.

City Attorney Scott Walker said that this change probably could not be developed in time for the upcoming fiscal year.

The commissioners agreed that accepting the higher assessment rate would prevent the other commissioners from being tied to a decision they did not make.

“We certainly don’t want to do anything that prevents them from having a say,” Marlowe said.

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HIGH SPRINGS – Plans for the purchase of software to bring an emergency dispatch center back to the High Springs Police Department (HSPD) hit a roadblock during a special meeting Tuesday, July 17.

HSPD Chief Steve Holley presented commissioners with an agreement for CAD software that would cost the City some $39,000 in the current fiscal year.  Those expenditures, and others required for the startup would be taken from the City’s contingency fund, which would require a budget amendment, according to City Attorney Ray Ivey and former city attorney Thomas DePeter.

Commissioner Scott Jamison, who has opposed bringing the dispatch back to HSPD due to costs, objected altogether to the City using contingency funds to restart the dispatch service.

“This isn’t an emergency.  This is a purchase of choice,” Jamison said of the dispatch center.

The City already submitted a letter in June to discontinue dispatch services with the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office Combined Communications Center (CCC).  That started a clock, which calls for the City to take over its own dispatch services on Oct 1.

By Tuesday evening, Holley said, “Time here is my enemy.”

In requesting approval of the $39,000 purchase agreement, Holley said, “Things have to start moving now, to make it.”

Whether or not the dispatch center will be up and running in time for the Oct. 1 deadline seems to be in question, especially since the commission is now moving forward with a budget amendment to make necessary adjustments allowing for the transfer of funds to make the purchases.

The first public hearing on that budget amendment has been scheduled for July 30, adding a nearly two-week delay to the timing.

There seemed to be other unanswered questions about dispatch related costs, including personnel, training, and additional equipment.  By the end of discussions Tuesday, City Manager Jeri Langman said she would be meeting with Holley to nail down all of the anticipated costs that would impact the current budget.  Preliminary estimates projected some $90,000 in costs during the current budget year to get the dispatch started by Oct. 1, the start of the next fiscal year.

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W_-_Sinkhole_Pavement_S5000046_copyOn Tuesday workers laid new asphalt over what had been a 20-foot deep sinkhole on Northwest 115th Avenue.

ALACHUA – City of Alachua Mayor Gib Coerper took a step to financially prepare the City for natural disasters by officially declaring a local state of emergency at a special city commission meeting Tuesday.

The proclamation allows for City Manager Traci Cain “to take all reasonable and necessary emergency measures” to provide continuing safety services to the city.

This includes the waiving of the city’s purchasing guidelines and ordinances, allowing the city manager to procure emergency goods and services without competitive bidding or the requirement to seek approval from the city commission.

Marcian Brown, finance director for the City of Alachua, stated that the proclamation is not a reaction but rather a precaution, noting that the City must declare a local state of emergency in order to potentially receive funding from FEMA should Alachua County become eligible for emergency funds.

The proclamation came after Tropical Storm Debby caused a variety of damage in the area, including a sinkhole on Northwest 115th Avenue.

According to Mike New, the City of Alachua public services director, the sinkhole was 2 feet in diameter at the surface but was 20 feet deep and 20 feet in diameter beneath the ground.

Workers from the City of Alachua began to fix the hole with backfill compacting and installing grouting tubes, eventually adding concrete inside the hole.  On Tuesday afternoon, workers completed much of the asphalt restoration on the surface of the hole.

The cost of repairing this sinkhole is estimated at $45,000-$50,000.  New noted that there are a few other sinkholes in the area and supports the proclamation of a state of emergency in order to allot necessary funds to fix problems such as these.

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