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HIGH SPRINGS – Possible changes in the City’s budget discussed last week will likely affect everything from the police department to a potential Poe Springs partnership.  Commissioners met in a workshop Feb. 2 to consider budget amendments that were required because a planned wastewater rate hike was never instituted.

An anticipated transfer of $81,325 from the wastewater fund to the City’s general fund is expected to be taken out of the budget.  The decision comes after the current commission decided not to proceed with increasing wastewater rates.  Without the increased rates, the city would likely be unable to transfer the $81,325 to the general fund and make principle and interest payments on the wastewater system without depleting contingency funds.

If commissioners approve the budget adjustments as discussed, they would eliminate a police lieutenant position from the High Springs Police Department (HSPD) budget.  That cut would bring a savings of $71,558.  Mayor Dean Davis suggested at one point that perhaps officers should be promoted to lieutenant since it’s a salaried position and does not allow for overtime.  Although the position would be removed from the 2011/12 fiscal year budget, commissioners noted that the position may be added back in for the 2012/13 budget.

While HSPD appears to be losing one position, the amendments would call for increasing one part-time officer to full-time.  That brings an expected cost of $30,000.

Interim City Manager Jeri Langman proposed cutting a $1,200 annual mobile phone expense and placing it into a more flexible account that could be used for expenses such as lunches.  But when pressed by Commissioner Sue Weller as to what kind of expenses might be funded with the transfer, Langman said she couldn’t think of anything in particular.  That prompted the commission to plan on using the funds toward a scanner for use by the City Clerk to digitize records.

The City expects to realize a savings of $63,000 for dispatch services as a result of eliminating its own dispatch center and contracting with the Combined Communications Center run by the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO).  Not all commissioners are keen on the idea, however.  Commissioner Linda Gestrin said she has received numerous complaints from residents about the delay in response times.

About $5,500 would be cut from travel expenses across several departments.  The City anticipates a $4,000 savings in legal fees.  It has already realized some $8,600 in savings since it hasn’t hired a permanent city manager and another $13,500 since the recreation director position has been vacant.

At a cost of $5,500, the City plans on hiring crossing guards to assist High Springs Community School students crossing County Road 236.  Another $2,000 has been slated for an email backup and archive system.

The recent resignation of Commissioner Eric May means the City will be required to hold an election before the end of April, costing an estimated $2,500.

After hammering out details in a nearly two-hour-long workshop last week, the commission found $44,636 in excess that it plans to move to a contingency fund.  Vice-Mayor Bob Barnas has proposed pledging $20,000 of that contingency toward taking over management of Poe Springs Park, a project he’s pushed for several months.

The proposed budget amendments are on the agenda for the Feb. 9 commission meeting to be held at 6:30 p.m.

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HIGH SPRINGS – Major decisions are up for consideration during a Feb. 9 High Springs workshop and commission meeting.

During the workshop, which begins at 5:30 p.m., commissioners are to discuss how to proceed with the city manager hiring process.  During the regular meeting at 6:30, commissioners may consider appointing someone to fill the seat vacated last week by Commissioner Eric May.  Also up for a vote are proposed budget amendments.

Although it is uncertain what commissioners will do with the city manager position, two commissioners have previously voted to appoint Interim City Manager Jeri Langman to take over the post permanently.

Of the five candidates picked by commissioners to be on the final list, W.D. Higginbotham, Jr. is apparently the only candidate in the running for the city manager job.  Higginbotham was a city manager for Gainesville during the 1980s.  Most of the other would-be candidates bowed out after commissioners said they wanted someone who would be willing to assume the role without a severance package and without travel expenses.

During a January meeting, Vice-Mayor Bob Barnas and Commissioner Linda Gestrin attempted to name Langman to the permanent job.  Commissioner Sue Weller and May opposed the measure and it ultimately failed when Mayor Dean Davis said he was in opposition because he didn’t like the city’s form of government.

At a budget workshop on Feb. 2, the commission considered cutting the available salary for a new city manager.  But after Weller voiced opposition, Barnas said the budget reduction could wait until the Feb. 9 workshop, when commissioners decide how to proceed with the city manager position.  During the commission meeting immediately following the workshop, commissioners could appoint Langman to be the permanent city manager.

The commission could also appoint an interim commissioner to fill the vacancy in Seat 5 left by May’s resignation last week.  According to High Springs’ city charter, the commission may appoint an interim commissioner to fill the seat until the special election.  The City is required by the charter to hold a special election to fill Seat 5 no later than April 29.

Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Pam Carpenter has asked the city to schedule the election for April 10, the same day two other municipalities are conducting elections.  The commission is scheduled to consider the election and a possible interim appointment at the Thursday meeting.

The commission is also expected to adopt an amended 2011/12 fiscal year budget following a workshop conducted last week.  The proposed budget changes call for the elimination of a police lieutenant position, travel expenses and a wastewater fund transfer.  See related story, High Springs budget could affect plans on page A*.

The Feb. 9 workshop will begin at 5:30 with discussion about the city manager hiring process, followed by the commission meeting at 6:30 at High Springs City Hall.

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HIGH SPRINGS – Just days after High Springs Interim Police Chief William Benck submitted his resignation, which was to be effective in two weeks, Interim City Manager Jeri Langman dismissed him immediately, promoted another officer to sergeant and then promoted that same officer to chief by Monday afternoon.

James Steve Holley’s promotion comes at a tumultuous time for the city, as it follows the recent resignations of Benck, Commissioner Eric May, former city attorney Tom DePeter and the city’s engineering firm of Jones Edmunds.

After providing two weeks' notice, Benck was directed by Langman to leave on Thursday, Jan. 26, just days after he tendered his resignation. According to personnel action reports, Langman promoted Holley the next day on Friday, Jan. 27, from a police officer to a sergeant.  She said the reason for Holley’s promotion was because the police office was understaffed.

During Monday’s city commission meeting, Langman announced that Holley had been promoted again, this time from sergeant to police chief earlier that day.  Over the span of three days, Holley went from being an officer to the chief and his salary increased from $18.10 hourly to $55,000 a year, the equivalent of a $17,000 annual increase of nearly 46 percent.

Alachua County Today attempted to contact interim city manager Jeri Langman to clarify the city’s hiring process as well as other personnel matters occurring in the city, but as of press time received no response.

The Monday meeting, which had previously been scheduled to hash out a memorandum of understanding with the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) to assist in running the city’s police department, was cancelled just minutes after it started. Those details would have included bringing a deputy from ACSO to fill the position of Interim Police Chief until a permanent one could be found.  But with Holley’s promotion, city officials felt there was no need for the extra assistance the agreement could have provided.

When Benck resigned, Langman said she put out a request for anyone within the city that was qualified.

“It was important to me that we find someone here already, familiar with the department and who knows what to do,” she said.

Holley’s fellow officers, Langman said, felt that he was the best man for the job.  He was the only one who applied.  The new chief will bring a different managerial style and a sense of community to the city, said Vice Mayor Bob Barnas during Monday’s meeting.

Holley has 33 years on the job, with experience as a patrol officer, sergeant and a K-9 officer. He plans to focus on the police officers by providing them with new equipment and new training. Holley wants the officers to attend no cost salary-incentive courses taught at local institutions, focusing on courses such as Injury and Death Investigation, Traffic Homicide and Case Preparation.

“I will be a working chief,” Holley said. “In order to send someone to school, I have to take over their shift.”

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GAINESVILLE – Alachua County commissioners recently voted to send a letter to the local state delegation stating their opposition of four proposed bills including a bill which pre-empts the county’s citizen-initiated and voter-approved airboat curfew.

The letter states that the proposed bills would “erode the local home rule authority” of Alachua County and other Florida counties as well.

The text of the letter previously discussed solely the commission’s opposition of Senator Steve Oelrich’s proposed bill which would erode the county’s authority over the 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. airboat curfew. The letter was revised to include three other bills as well.

The other proposed bills comprised in the revised letter included a bill that would halt counties from requiring applicants looking to process development plan applications to acquire state and federal permits and a bill that would diminish the local control of workforce boards. The letter further included a bill that would keep counties from collecting a tourist tax from online travel companies.

“The language they gave us in the letter was concentrated on home rule and the reference to the airboats was a minor part,” President of the United Sportsmen & Airboaters Alliance, Jerry Wetherington said. “The original letter badmouthed airboats.”

The voter-approved curfew was passed in 2010 by a vote of 56.18 percent. Oelrich’s bill would require airboats to meet sound level tests in order to operate on waterways with local ordinances prohibiting airboats.

Commissioner Lee Pinkoson, who does not support the curfew, said that the legislation may be much to-do about nothing.

“I don’t think the airboat issue will gain traction at the state level,” Pinkoson said. “In my mind home rule is the issue we should be determined to have in our county.”

The letter, which includes the four bills, passed by a 3-1 vote with Commissioner Susan Baird in dissent.

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Eric_May HIGH SPRINGS – High Springs Commissioner Eric May resigned from his post on the commission effective Tuesday morning.  In an alarming statement, May wrote in an email, “High Springs’ government is in an emergency situation and I cannot stop it.”

May’s resignation comes amid intense political unrest in High Springs, where just last week, Interim Police Chief William Benck resigned, giving two weeks notice, and was then dismissed immediately by Interim City Manager Jeri Langman.

The night before May resigned, Langman effectively canceled a meeting in which the commission was to consider a partnership with the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) to help run the High Springs Police Department.  Langman promoted Officer Steve Holley to a sergeant Friday then to Police Chief on Monday.

In an email, May was specifically critical of Langman’s actions, writing, “Decisions such as our interim manager's electing to terminate a police chief, promote a friend within the department -- unilaterally in the chief's absence --to the rank of sergeant, then going on to name that person to chief of police on the same day the city was to approve a memorandum of understanding with the Sheriff's Office to bring in an outside, interim chief are just scratches on the surface of the problems we have here.”

He also accused Langman of playing favorites with commissioners.  “For me personally, I have fallen victim to the manager neglecting to inform me of meetings and appointments and being left in the dark on information that is being fed to other commissioners,” he wrote.

In his letter to High Springs City Clerk Jenny Parham, May wrote, “…the direction our city has taken in recent months has caused me to reevaluate the impact completing my term would have on my life, including my family and my personal health.”

The former commissioners said in his letter that the city was on an “irreparable course filled with continued cronyism complimented by unethical and illegal behaviors.” The likes of which, May said he, “Simply could not have any personal part of.”

“It breaks my heart to see what is going on in our town but I, as one commissioner, do not have the ability to change the city’s course and cannot stay on board and take on the liability that will be assumed in the coming months.”

May seemed to call on the current commission to take responsibility, writing, “remember, it doesn’t matter who created the problems, it’s just our job as a city to fix them.”

He wrote in an email that he was being denied avenues to obtain pertinent information, “all the while my phone rang off the hook with more bad news on the other end.  Often it was a concerned citizen who witnessed such cronyism as a commissioner's political supporter being preferred for a job or another discouraged from applying.  Other times it was a city employee speaking confidentially of the unethical or questionably-legal behaviors the city manager or her cronies were performing at city hall.”

As for his accomplishments as a commissioner, May said he stood proudly behind them.

“Since joining the commission in November 2009 I have undertaken the mission of cutting wasteful spending and attracting jobs to our community.  I personally championed a commercial tax abatement program that is unmatched in our local area and I’m happy to report our annual budget was reduced over a half a million dollars annually – not an easy feat given a city our size.”

He is also largely responsible for arranging to have audio recordings of the commission meetings placed online and open to the public.

His departure will likely leave Commissioner Sue Weller as a lone wolf on many issues before the commission.  Weller said Tuesday that she would continue to serve.  “The voters of High Springs elected me to serve a three year term, and that’s what I intend to do,” Weller said.

Having been elected in 2009, May said he already made the decision he would not seek re-election when his term was set to expire in November 2012.

He said he was sad to leave office and felt like he was letting the citizens down, but added, “I cannot … have my name and reputation attached to the antics that are absolutely tearing this city apart.

“I am incredibly humbled to have had the opportunity to serve as a city commissioner,” May wrote.

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Hoggetown_IMG_1133_copyRevelers join in the daily Hoggetowne opening, greeting visitors with music, flare and pageantry.

GAINESVILLE – The 26th Annual Hoggetowne Medieval Faire sent visitors on a whirlwind adventure, ablaze with horses, knights, magic and brew, at the Alachua County Fairgrounds, Saturday, Jan. 28, and Sunday, Jan. 29.

“People come to get out of their every day hustle and bustle, come into this fantasy world and have fun with all there is to do here,” Linda Piper, Events Coordinator for the City of Gainesville, said.

Piper has been the Events Coordinator of Hoggetowne for 18 years and strives every year to push the envelope and attract more and more visitors through social media outlets, like Facebook, and through Hoggetowne’s dedicated sponsorship. This year she expects a turnout of over 50,000 guests, already coming close to her estimate with 12,000 visitors Saturday and 9,500 visitors on Sunday.

Piper encourages visitors who come, to plan to spend the whole day, in order to see every event, shop and game Hoggetowne has to offer.

Hoggetowne’s 10 a.m. start has the whole medieval group, consisting of over 160 people, greet visitors at the towering castle-arch entrance. From then on, the fairgrounds are filled with knights on horses, families enjoying pony, elephant and camel rides, row-to-row shops of jewelry and other medieval wares, and countless magic, music, and jousting shows.

“I enjoy the camaraderie, companionship and the family one builds going around from fair to fair. It’s [the medieval circuit] a great life and here is where it all begins,” said Sara Dunlap, merchant at Hoggetowne for 26 years.

Dunlap, London-born and current resident of Middleburg, Fla., follows the medieval circuit to run her Ladye Fayre Dolls and Puppets shop, where she sells self-made porcelain dolls, clay puppets and dragon sculptures to fair goers.

Hoggetowne not only acts as an outlet for companionship, like Dunlap and many other merchants enjoy, but also as an outlet for immense creativity and passion for medieval art.

“The King [King Arthur of Hoggetowne] gave me the Best Merchant Award in 2009, for having the most medieval looking booth, with my 13-foot-high stone tower I made out of polyurethane foam, for an authentic look,” said Jim Oliver, merchant of Avatar Staffs and Wands shop.

Oliver, who has been a professional staff and wand maker for eight years, is a more recent addition to the Hoggetowne Faire, setting up shop here four years ago.

He concentrates on staff and wand-making the majority of the day at Hoggetowne, but also enjoys the company of those who share the same passion for medieval times.

“At night I hang around with the gypsies around the fire, singing and playing music with them,” said Oliver.

Hoggetowne is something you won’t see in everyday life around most communities. People from all over the nation attend every year to take part in something a little less ordinary and strive for the extraordinary, with medieval dress, demeanor and lifestyle.

Gracie Randbow, a teenager from Lake Butler, Fla., has come to Hoggetowne every year since she was one year old. To Randbow, Hoggetowne is a sense of comfort and excitement, close to her birthday in mid-February.

“I dress up every year I can. Some years it is muddy here, so I’ll try and go with the boots and leggings look, but otherwise I go with a dress,” said Randbow.

Randbow dresses up this year in a vintage, white lace and chiffon style dress, with a stone pendent hanging from her neck, something she finds simple in this “big hodgepodge of pretty colors and bold people.”

For other visitors, Hoggetowne is a place where they can find friendly faces and make new acquaintances throughout the medieval excitement.

This makes the fourth consecutive year that Ocala resident Clarice Kentwood has come to Hoggetowne for her favorite event, the Living Chessboard match, and most importantly to raise awareness for her cancer cause, “Hats For Happiness.”

“I bring my dog, JeZibel, with me every year and this big white dog attracts a lot of attention, so that gives me the opportunity to talk about Hats For Happiness to anyone who will listen,” said Kentwood.

Kentwood says she believes Hoggetowne is an “amazing” place, where she can find some of the friendliest people around and seek them out for her cause.

Over Hoggetowne’s 26 years of existence in the Gainesville area, the authenticity of the medieval times never ceases to diminish.

Steven Harrett, “Baron” under the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), says when the SCA founded the fair, he and others under the society have come every year to help keep the passion alive in this recreation of medieval times. Harrett hosts sparring matches, in which visitors can participate, and seeks to teach fair goers about sparring, the weaponry, and the need for a truly authentic medieval experience.

The Hoggetowne Medieval Faire has events for all ages and will continue this weekend, starting Friday, Feb. 3, through Sunday, Feb. 5. Admission is $7 for ages 5-17 and $14 for adults. Faire hours are 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, and 9:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. on Friday.

Friday is “School Day,” where children from many schools come to learn about the medieval history. All people can attend Friday and admission will be half-price.

For more information, call the City of Gainesville Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs at 352-334-ARTS or visit www.gvlculturalaffairs.org.

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Construction of the baseball park is 65 percent complete

2012NationsBallParkFebToday the fields of Nations Park lie silent, but in a few short months the cracks of bats connecting with balls will fill the air.

NEWBERRY – For months, Newberry has created local buzz about the construction of Nations Park, a state-of-the-art baseball complex just south of the city’s downtown.

The $7 million project is now 65 percent complete, according to City Manager Keith Ashby. He estimated that construction would be completed in March, which leaves two months for the turf to mature. The completion of the park will bring in not only crowds for summer camps, but also economic development.

The 16-field baseball park will hold tournaments this summer. The first tournament begins June 22, according to Kyle Donnelly, who is in charge of baseball operations at the park.

Donnelly, who goes by Don, said the success of the baseball park is not a hope but a certainty.

There have already been signs of the success of the park. The Red Wok Buffet, a Chinese restaurant located in the Hitchcock Plaza off State Road 26, recently opened, and another restaurant, Firefly, is to open in March, Ashby said.

A new commercial and residential complex to be built south of Oak View Middle School has also been approved. The City is currently pursuing another Community Development Block Grant to bring infrastructure to the complex.

There will be opening ceremonies for the baseball park on the weekend of June 30. The celebration will begin at 10 a.m. with a parade of teams through downtown Newberry, Ashby said. A ribbon-cutting ceremony, complete with fireworks will also take place during that weekend at the park.

Nations Park was built by a company affiliated with Cooperstown Dreams Park, a New York baseball park that draws crowds from around the country. The hope is that Newberry’s park will have similar results.

“There is a lot of development excitement that has been generated by both the Archery Center and the Nations Baseball Complex,” Ashby said.

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