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Two High Springs firefighters have resigned in wake of an active, ongoing investigation in the department, a city official confirmed Wednesday.

According to Interim City Manager Jenny Parham, the two firefighters submitted their resignations, effective since Tuesday, but because of open investigations, she said she could not elaborate further. She would not name the two individuals, but she said everything relating to the issue will become public record as soon as the investigation is concluded.

One High Springs resident, who did not want to be named in order to protect their source of information, said the High Springs Police Department is currently conducting eight separate internal investigations on the fire department regarding complaints stemming from alleged acts of hazing among firefighters.

It’s a really sensitive issue, said City Commissioner Eric May, who declined to comment on the nature of the investigations or any details about the parties involved.

Any time there is wrongdoing, it’s important to hear both sides he said, adding that because of the ongoing investigation, he wanted to protect the rights of all individuals involved by not commenting at this time.

High Springs Fire Chief Verne Riggall also said he could not comment, beyond confirming that two firefighters had resigned. He said it is his understanding that they did so with the belief that it would be in the best interest of the department.

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The Hawthorne City Commission will be reviewing Hawthorne’s budget again, after a concerned resident pointed out Tuesday evening what he believed were numerous discrepancies in the town’s guiding financial document.

Ray Daniel, a retired deputy state materials and resource engineer, attended the meeting to inform the commission of errors he found in the budget. Although it was passed as a balanced budget, Daniel’s own calculations show a deficit. A deficit he estimates to be nearly $400,000.

The problem, according to Daniel, arises from utility allocations made in the budget.  The adopted budget appears to reflect transfers from utility revenues into several other departments such as the City Commission, City Manager, Executive and other departments.  But those deductions seemingly never appear to come out of any of the utility departments’ budgets. 

According to the budget Daniel was referencing, 95 percent of the Customer Service department’s $42,000 budget is to be funded through “Utilities Allocations” while the remaining five percent would come from the general fund revenues.  But none of the city’s three utility departments reflect that $39,911 expenditure.  

“Utilities Allocations” were used to fund seven other departments as well and none of those transfers in are balanced by transfers out from any of the utilities.

To remedy the deficit Daniel believes the city will have to increase water/wastewater rates by 193.5 percent, almost triple what it is now, unless the city trims its budget drastically.

“Citizens of Hawthorne cannot afford such increases,” Daniel said.

He argues that if the city commission continues to use funds at the rate they are, with a reliance on the uncertain ‘balanced’ budget, the city will run out of money in the spring. Then to recover from the deficit, he believes the city will have no option but to quadruple the water/wastewater rate.

“I guarantee if you all do not take action you will have rough times ahead for the citizens of Hawthorne,” Daniel said to the commission at the meeting on Tuesday.

City manager Ed Smyth mentioned that he had the budget looked over by an accountant and was told that the budget was balanced. He did admit that the accountant only gave the budget a cursory glance.

Now Smyth is concerned that a he may have missed something or a mathematical error may have thrown off the balance. He said he was not sure of what exactly Daniel was arguing, and he cannot verify nor deny Daniel’s arguments. Smyth pointed out that he was not prepared for a discussion of the budget, and had no paperwork with him to discuss the issue.

“I have no idea what methods were used [by Daniel] or what version of the budget he used,” Smyth said.

Smyth is certain of one thing, he will make sure he and his accountant go over the budget in more detail.

Residents at the meeting were concerned that such serious problems may have been overlooked in the budget.

“I’m amazed, and it scares me,” Vivian Wagner, a concerned resident and regular attendee at commission meetings, said.

Commissioners were worried about the budget issues brought up in the meeting as well, and the commission decided to hold a budget workshop to further discuss these issues on Tuesday, Oct. 26 at 10 a.m.

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 For those looking for an excuse to get out of the house and enjoy the beautiful weather this weekend, Newberry is the place to go for festive fall fun.

The Fourth Annual Fall Market Festival is planned to take place in downtown Newberry on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and will spotlight more than 50 vendors from all over the state, said Main Street Manager Barbara Hendrix, one of the event’s coordinators.

 As visitors stroll down Seaboard Drive, they will be able to check out arts and crafts displays, shop the local produce at the farmers market, listen to live music from the band Late Night Delivery and even try their hand at interactive archery demonstrations. When hunger sets in, they will be enticed by the aromas coming from a veritable potpourri of food vendors, including several that will be competing in a barbeque cook-off.

Hendrix said the Main Street Organization tried to include something for every age group when coordinating the event. The kids will have a number of different activities to explore such as pony rides, face painting, bounce houses and a basketball toss. For the adults, a health fair will offer expert advice on healthy living, blood pressure and blood sugar checks and “brown bag checks” for those who wish to bring in their prescription medications to have them evaluated.

Last year’s festival attracted 4,000 people and Hendrix expects to see even more come out this year due to a heightened interest in Newberry’s expanding community.

“Newberry is growing in so many different ways and people want to come and see what’s going on,” she said.

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HighSpringsAt a last-minute meeting Thursday afternoon, the city commission gave unanimous approval to accept a resignation agreement from its City Manager, Jim Drumm.

Subsequently, the public hearing on the subject scheduled for late that evening, was cancelled, as he was no longer being terminated, but rather stepping down.

The terms of his resignation included a $66,433.80 check to be made out to Drumm as soon as the agreement was signed into effect.

He will also retain city health insurance, including family coverage, for the next six months, and the city gave him a neutral reference letter for future employers.

Under the agreement, Drumm fully releases and settles any and all claims related to his employment with the city.

Before casting his vote on Thursday, commissioner Larry Travis, who was the only one to vote against Mayor Bill Coughlin’s motion to terminate the city manager several weeks ago, said, he still thinks the mayor’s move was “ship-shod and fool-hardy,” and he didn’t think Drumm should go.

But because he submitted his resignation, Travis said he would vote to approve it.

The letter Drumm sent was only two sentences:

“I, James D. Drumm, hereby resign as City Manager and City Clerk of the City of High Springs effective October 21, 2010 at the close of business. It has been an honor to have served the City of High Springs.”

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This weekend the Newberry Lions Club will be hosting their 5th Annual Walk in support of Autism Speaks.  The walk will take place Saturday, Oct. 23 at 10 a.m. – 12 noon, at the Oakview Middle School track in Newberry.  The track is located behind the school and there is plenty of parking.  Participants are urged to come early to register.  All money raised goes to Autism Speaks for research.  Come have fun, network, walk, run if you chose, buy a chance drawing ticket for one of many great prizes. Enjoy lunch provided by Gator Domino’s. 

One child in 110 is affected by autism, and in boys, it’s one in 74.  School systems, communities and families are affected by the many children with the disorder. 

The Newberry Lions Club asks for support by participating, donating, and telling others about the walk.  All checks should be made payable to Autism Speaks.  For more information call 352-472-4335.

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Q_-_alachuaFallFest_2010Sunshine and cool temperatures set the stage for a great turnout at the Alachua Harvest Festival this past Sunday.  The daylong event held in downtown Alachua featured fun-filled festivities for the whole family along with special attractions, tasty cuisine, carnival like games, a multitude of vendors, and continuous live performances.  Sponsored by the Alachua Business League, SunState Federal Credit Union, Gator Dominos, Alachua Printing and the City of Alachua, admission to the 8th annual festival was free to the public.  The festival is held annually in October and attracts visitors from all over the area to Main Street, Alachua.

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Q_-_HSForum2010L-R: Bob Barnas, William Coughlin, Linda Clark Gestrin, Sue Weller, and Byran Williams faced off at a candidates’ forum Tuesday night, vying for votes in the city commission election to be held Nov. 2.

Money, alcohol, the future and city morale were some of the topics of discussion at Tuesday night’s candidates’ forum.

The High Springs New Century Women’s Club hosted the hour-long event to provide an opportunity for city commission candidates to answer questions from the community.

The candidates sat side by side as they passed a microphone back and forth, each giving his or her answer, or rebuttal, to the five questions picked out of a hat.

Linda Clark Gestrin, Byran Williams, Bob Barnas, Sue Weller and current High Springs Mayor Bill Coughlin are vying for two commission seats up for grabs in November.

John Hill, who was appointed to replace Diane Shupe after she resigned, holds one of the open seats, and Coughlin occupies the other. Hill is not running.

Each candidate offered an opening statement sharing their background with the audience of about 40 and explained why they deserve a vote.

Meet the candidates

Clark-Gestrin said she was excited to be there, and she wants to “help restore respect and common sense to City Hall.”

Williams proclaimed his pride and allegiance to Santa Fe High School as a 1976 graduate. He made it clear that he loves High Springs, and he is about unity in the community, not division.

He told the audience, “We all belong to High Springs.”

Acknowledging his competition, Barnas said every candidate wants the best for the city, they just differ on how to improve it.

But, he said, “It’s time for change.”

He also reminded the audience that he has been a licensed realtor since 2005, and by law he must always “account for all funds,” stressing that is exactly what he’ll do as a commissioner.

Weller pointed out her 24 years of experience working for the City of Miami, for 12 of which she was director of labor relations. She said one of her major concerns now in High Springs is that the current commission has ignored recommendations from economic task forces.

Coughlin, who is nearing the end of his second, though not consecutive, term on the commission, talked about his experience serving in the United States Navy for six years and his experience serving the community of High Springs.

He said he wants “to keep the nice town we’re used to, but we have to be able to pay our bills.”

The issues at hand

The first question stated there appears to be dissatisfaction with city government, and low morale at City Hall; what would each candidate do to restore trust and confidence and raise morale?

The first four to speak echoed each other, agreeing on the need for open communication, government transparency and accessibility.

The current mayor not only disagreed with these answers, but he challenged the premise of the question itself, saying there isn’t dissatisfaction with the current commission.  He said that before he was elected three years ago, businesses downtown couldn’t have lit “open” signs, and the city budget was headed for a train wreck.

As for low morale at City Hall, he said he knows of plenty of employees who are “happy as clams.”

The second question addressed the recent debate over how to prioritize public safety in the city budget.

“I think public safety is paramount,” said Weller.

Williams and Clark Gestrin both shared similar philosophies, saying that it is and must always be No. 1. Citizens want to be safe in their community, said Williams.

Clark Gestrin added that to support this priority and the current level of service, the city has to expand its tax base.

Coughlin was critical of High Springs for having a police department, fire department and dispatch center as compared to other towns its size of fewer than 5,000 residents, most of which, he said, do not operate their own departments.

Barnas said the majority of residents want to keep the level of services they have, and he supports that, but overtime scheduling needs to be modified, and he wants to avoid raising taxes or fees.

Perhaps one of the most anticipated subjects, question No. 3 asked candidates whether they agree with the recent action to terminate City Manager Jim Drumm, and how they view the role of city manager.

While Barnas and Williams both suggested they did not necessarily disagree that Drumm should leave, they didn’t like the way it was done. Questions were raised why the commission wouldn’t wait until January, when Drumm’s contract could be non-renewed, and the city wouldn’t have to pay him severance.

Coughlin refrained from commenting on the basis that he represents the commission and the city, which is in the midst of negotiations with Drumm, and Clark Gestrin said she didn’t have all pertinent information to pass judgment.

Only Weller disagreed with Drumm’s dismissal, saying he’s done a good job in his role as city manager, and the commission shouldn’t be trying to micromanage.

The next question touched on another timely hot-button issue: alcohol.

The candidates were asked that if it meant more restaurants would set up shop in High Springs, would they amend the rule that alcohol cannot be sold (for immediate consumption) within 500 ft. of a church. Currently, retail stores like gas stations and convenience stores can sell packaged alcohol, such as six-packs of beer and bottles of wine, within 500 ft. of a church, but restaurants cannot serve alcohol if they are within such distance.

Weller was the only candidate to say she would consider amending the law to less than 500 ft.

The last question prompted the five opponents to describe what they see as High Springs’ most outstanding feature, and how they see the city economy developing in the future.

The consensus was that the city’s most prized features are the people who live there, the rivers and springs running through it and the historic district.

Barnas seemed to lead the charge for promoting the area’s natural attractions, and taking advantage of all the traffic passing through, whereas Coughlin stood fast that new business needs to be brought in, including some industry, because above all else, there needs to be local job opportunities.

Williams and Clark Gestrin also stressed the importance of promoting local business, and Weller echoed Barnas on the value of the springs and also the historic downtown area.

Now it’s up to the voters

After the forum concluded, Commissioner Larry Travis said he thought it went fine, but was disappointed that more residents didn’t come out to listen to what the candidates had to say.

The majority of people who did show, he said, are ones who have already made up their mind and know who they’re going to vote for.

It’s the people who didn’t come who would benefit from having more information to base their decision on, because their minds might not be made up yet, he added.

Vice Mayor Eric May thought people didn’t come because they have already decided.  He also said he thinks voter turnout will be strong despite the lack of attendance at the forum.

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