HIGH SPRINGS – After receiving numerous renaming suggestions over a period of several months for the old High Springs Elementary School building in its new capacity as a community center, commissioners finally settled on The Historic High Springs Elementary School and Community Center.

The most recent debate, which occurred at the July 11 city commission meeting, centered on whether the building’s original use as a school needed to be maintained as part of the new name for historic reasons or would that be confusing to new people who were looking for a school for their children.

Then again, the school originally was a high school before it was an elementary school. Should the type of school it was originally or last used as be included? Would people confuse the community center with the Civic Center if it was just called the High Springs Community Center? Should the words “High Springs” be included in the name as everyone in town would know what town they were in? A suggestion to put up a plaque or marker to signify it was the historic location of the school was debated. The issue of whether the word, “historic” should be included in the name came up.

In an effort to settle the debate raging for the past 6-7 months, Mayor Sue Weller made a formal motion for the new name, which finally passed unanimously.

As part of Weller’s discussion, she said people could call it whatever they wanted. It was still going to be used as a community center and she believed most people would refer to it that way, no matter what the name.

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W - Alachua July 4

Despite on-again-off-again rain at Alachua’s 4th of July celebration, the annual rib-eating contest went off as planned as contestants chowed down in hopes of winning the $100 prize.

ALACHUA – Muddy ground below them, fireworks above, the inhospitable weather didn't stop the crowd from enjoying the Independence Day festivities in Alachua last Thursday.

The 14th annual Fourth of July celebration at the Hal Brady Recreation Complex in the City of Alachua saw about 20,000 to 25,000 people last week, despite the rain, said Adam Boukari, assistant city manager.

"If it rains again, I'll just take out my umbrella," said attendee Barbara Chapman, who went to the event with her granddaughters. "The fireworks are fabulous." It was her first time at the Alachua event.

The gathering started at 3 p.m., with people parking in an open field that still had empty space even later into the evening.

Kids got their faces painted, went on slides and into bouncy houses and had some encounters with animals at the petting zoo. Especially when the rain got heavy, people enjoyed indoor activities like bingo.

A variety of vendors provided food and souvenirs, such as Bev's Better Burgers and Nish Bliss Fashion.

Despite the sign that said "no pets," dogs were seen on a few occasions.

Between 6 and 7 p.m., Bev’s Better Burgers rib-eating contest was underway. The contestants appeared to struggle chewing the last bite, even several minutes after time was called. The victor, winning the $100 spoil was Ellis Chapman, who finished 10 ribs in five minutes, according to the judges.

Live music was provided by Natalie Nicole Green and the Little Bit More Band, the United We Stand Band and Jamocracy, which started at 5 p.m.

The rain started pouring around 7:30, forcing the crowd into shelter until it let up about an hour later.

Shortly after, the muddy field usually used for sports filled up with spectators waiting for the main attraction of the night.

Children played in the field as their parents sat on beach towels to shield themselves from the waterlogged ground. The fireworks started shortly before 9:30 p.m. Many people in the crowd were first-timers to the Alachua Fourth of July celebration.

Bernie Wilkins, from Missouri, came to the festivities with her family.

"This is our first time here," she said, her eyes not leaving the fiery display in the sky, limiting her conversations mostly to one word answers. The question was "Are you enjoying yourself?" The answer was simply an enthusiastic "Oh yeah!'

There were minimal traffic and congestion issues after the event was over, said Assistant City Manager Boukari. By the time 45 minutes had passed after the gathering ended, the parking lot was already empty he said.

"It was a very smooth event, one of the smoothest we've had."

Not everybody was as resolute as the attendees this year. The attendance was down about 5,000 people from last year, Boukari said.

As the large American flag was unrolled at the start of the fireworks, the wet and almost-wet people still seemed to enjoy themselves.

Michelle Vance, who said the softball field where the festivities took place was dedicated to her uncle, went to the celebration with her husband and two children.

"They're going to sleep good tonight," she said.

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County workers spent much of Wednesday taking care of last minute tasks prior to the reopening of Poe Springs Park July 4. The park has been closed since late in 2011.

HIGH SPRINGS – Aside from fireworks, barbecue and music, there is now another way to spend the Fourth of July.

Poe Springs is reopening today, after being closed since late 2011 for repairs.

Entry is free and open to the public. The hours will be from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday through Sunday.

The renovations included replacing the spring's retaining wall and steps, as well as installing new roofs on the buildings, new air conditioning units and doing some landscaping. A new lodge was built that is available for the public to rent. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection also made the county remove beach sand from the springs to prevent it from getting washed into the water. The cost of the makeover totaled $146,730.

Although the county owns Poe Springs, it has only directly managed the park since late 2011, when the private company Nature Quest's contract to run the day-to-day operations ended. Nature Quest's contract began in 2009. Prior to that, the YMCA ran Poe Springs since it was opened as a county park in 1992.

The future of the park's management was unclear when negotiations between the City of High Springs and the county fell through, mainly due to budget issues and delays caused by the renovations. City Commissioner Bob Barnas came to the county with the idea of High Springs taking over administrative duties. At least for now, it will continue to be run by the county.

“We're prepared to operate the park as part of the county park system," said Mark Sexton, Alachua County spokesperson in an earlier interview.

The county would still be willing to resume a dialogue with the city if it ever decided to reopen the issue, but that is unlikely in the near future, said Ed Booth, city manager for High Springs in an earlier interview. The city's financial situation won't allow it, and it will probably be about two years before the issue is considered again.

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With the delivery of 80 new grinder pumps, additional residences will be hooked up to the City of High Springs sewer system.


HIGH SPRINGS – Jacksonville-based T.G. Utility Company is in the process of installing 80 new grinder pumps in High Springs homes at no cost to the homeowners. The homes, which have been referred to as the “tweeners,” are homes that were missed earlier during the grinder pump installation as part of the city’s centralized sewer project.

This aspect of the project, which costs just under $1 million, is being funded completely by a USDA Rural Development grant as part of their original funding for the sewer project, the continuation of which has been put “on hold” by the city.

City Manager Ed Booth said, “The city retains ownership of the grinder pumps and easements so we can go in and service them.” One issue of concern for Booth is that many people are putting too much grease down their sinks, which has a tendency to clog up the pumps.

“The city is embarking on an education program to try to eliminate this problem,” said Booth. “When the problem occurs, the city has to remove the grease and repair or replace damaged parts, which can be costly,” he said. “If it appears that the homeowner is negligent, the city will have to charge for grease removal and parts to fix their grinder pump.”

Currently the city has approximately 900 grinder pumps, which Booth says “is more than any other city that I can find in the U.S. Key West may eventually rival us. I know they are looking into installing grinder pumps as well because they called to see what our experience has been with them,” he said.

“What this has done over the last 15 years is to transform High Springs, which is in an environmentally sensitive area replete with septic tanks, into one that has more than half the population using municipal sewer connections. I anticipate that these grinder pumps will significantly help the sewer fund pay for itself,” said Booth.

Although these 80 homeowners are getting grinder pumps at no cost due to grant funding, future developments or individuals wanting to connect to the city sewer system will have to pay for pumps to be installed.

Booth used as an example, the Cinnamon Hills subdivsion, which has already been plumbed for grinder pumps. “The developer already knows he will have to pay for the 56 homes he anticipates building in the next two years if he wishes to hook up.” At today’s cost, the pump and tank would cost $1,100. “The city will inspect the system, but the developer will have to hire his own contractor to install and hook up to our system, which could cost several thousand dollars,” said Booth.

The grinder pumps currently being installed are improvements over earlier models. “These are 220 volts, which are considerably stronger than the 110-volt systems installed 10 years ago,” he said.

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W - fireworksALACHUA – Can’t visit Walt Disney World for Fourth of July fireworks? The City of Alachua has you covered.

Alachua’s 14th Annual Fourth of July Celebration is set for Thursday from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. at the Hal Brady Recreation Complex.

The main event – fireworks – begin at 9:30 p.m.

Charmagne Manning, co-chair of the event, updated the city commission Monday evening with the activities being held.

They range from bingo in the gym, entertainment, including a performance by the Senior Cha-Cha’s and a free kids corner complete with pony rides, waterslides and rock climbing, she said.

There is free parking and no entrance fee, Manning said.

There will also be the annual rib-eating contest for contenders with healthy appetites.

For everyone else, the event will feature 38 food vendors selling a variety of edibles and beverages.

Safety will be enforced by the City of Alachua Police, police from other municipalities and the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office, she said.

Manning said there are over 17 sponsors that along with the community have contributed $27,000 toward the event.

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County to resume biodiesel production

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Alachua County is set to resume producing biodiesel from discarded cooking oil waste to power emergency generators and county vehicles.




ALACHUA COUNTY – Cooking oil used to fry somebody’s lunch on one day could end up in a county-owned car the next.

Governor Rick Scott signed a bill on June 7 that eliminates some of the paperwork local governments must do in order to produce biodiesel fuel.

Under the old law, Alachua County had to be licensed as a fuel wholesaler in order to produce even small amounts of biodiesel fuel solely for internal use.

As a fuel wholesaler, the county had to file taxes that it is exempt from, only to file for a refund later, said Mark Sexton, county spokesman. In addition, the county was required to keep record of and report its inventory of biodiesel to the state.  

"The paperwork was really designed for big oil companies," said Chris Bird, director of the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department.

The new bill exempts local governments and school districts from the fuel wholesaler requirements so long as they only produce for internal use.

Alachua County makes fuel from discarded cooking oil waste that local residents and businesses offload to one of the several collection centers the county has set up.

The county suspended biodiesel production last year, said John Mousa, Environmental Programs Manager at the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department. The paperwork required and the manpower Alachua County had to spend was too burdensome, he said.

The new law exempts local governments and school districts from the fuel wholesaler requirement if they produce small quantities for internal use only.

Local restaurants and businesses can drop used cooking oil waste at one of the local waste management stations, where it will be taken to the Alachua County Hazardous Waste Collection Center to be converted to fuel. The county already collects cooking oil waste from residents and businesses since it can clog drains and impact the sewer system, said Bird. The biodiesel is an added benefit that can be used to power generators in case of an emergency, as well as powering county vehicles to cut down on how much fuel it needs to buy. By making the vegetable oil waste into biodiesel, the county also avoids paying a waste disposal fee.  

Because the process requires minimal manpower, and people are already providing the main ingredient for free, the cost is much smaller than buying regular diesel Mousa said.

Making a gallon of fuel from vegetable oil waste costs the county about $2 per gallon, while buying a gallon of regular diesel costs about $3 per gallon. Mousa said. Unlike diesel prices, which fluctuate, the cost of making biodiesel remains relatively steady, he said. No additional manpower is used to collect the discarded oil. "It comes to us," he said. In the months before the county suspended production, Mousa said the county was making about 150-200 gallons per month.  

"For every gallon of biodiesel we produce, that's one less we have to buy," said Alachua spokesman Sexton. "It's a win-win," he added, noting that the bill will save the county money, give it some degree of energy independence and help prevent waste cooking oil from clogging up drains.

A single machine at the Hazardous Waste Collection Center converts the waste into fuel. Mike Keim, environmental specialist at the Hazardous Waste Collection Center estimated that making 50 gallons of biodiesel requires 50 gallons of waste vegetable oil, 50 gallons of water, about 10 gallons of methanol and around 2,300 grams of potassium hydroxide as a catalyst.

There was little to no opposition to the bill, said state Rep. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville. It passed through each committee unanimously and had widespread support, Sexton added. The county worked with the Florida Department of Revenue to ensure that the bill would not decrease the money the state collects from Alachua County. It only reduces the paperwork and extra bureaucratic steps, Sexton said.

In addition to Perry, state Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island and state Rep. Clovis Watson Jr., D-Alachua supported the bill.

"The paperwork was so onerous," Perry said, "it just made it not worthwhile" for the county to continue making fuel. He said this bill has no subsidies, but lets the rules of the economy prevail. If the county is successful in making biodiesel, he hopes private companies will follow suit and new technology will come as a result.

The county expects biodiesel production to resume July 15, Bird said. There will be a sort of reopening ceremony at the Hazardous Waste Collection Center to commemorate the occasion. The county plans to invest in a public education campaign to get more people to drop off household waste such as used vegetable oil.                

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HIGH SPRINGS – Hearing of a potential $60,800 increase in employee health insurance premiums in 2014 may have led to sticker shock on the part of the High Springs City Commission at the June 13, 2013 commission meeting.

John P. White, Account Executive for Bouchard Insurance, the city’s health insurance broker, delivered the news and how the City of High Springs may be impacted when the Affordable Care Act (ACA) goes into effect in 2014. Commissioners invited White to the meeting to provide insight into the ramifications of the ACA in order to help them plan for impending changes to their employee health insurance costs during the 2014/2015 fiscal year.

The ACA will go into effect for most businesses in the first quarter of 2014, but the city will get a reprieve until the following year’s budget according to City Manager Ed Booth.

Municipal government budgets run Oct. 1 through the end of September of the following year. The City of High Springs will not be required to address all of these issues in final form until well into 2014.

Booth said, “I am happy to delay how the program will work for our city until some of the ambiguities of the ACA have been worked out. Other types of businesses will have to face these issues during the first quarter of the year. Hopefully by the time we have to take action, the ambiguities will have been worked out.”

The program limits the amount an employee can be required to pay based on their income level and number of hours worked. It stipulates the employer-sponsored plan must pay at least 60 percent of “the plan’s share of total allowed costs of benefits provided under the plan.”

Employer provided coverage is deemed “unaffordable” if a worker’s employee contribution does not meet a mandated “Safe Harbor” level.

As an example of a Federal Poverty Level Safe Harbor (2013) for a single individual, $90.96 is the most a City of High Springs employee can pay toward employee-only monthly premium.

White described the penalties for employers not offering insurance benefits according to ACA.

In 2014, the penalty assessed on employers that do not offer coverage to at least 95 percent of all full-time (minimum of 30 hours per week) employees and their dependent children will be $2,000 per year. Another penalty states that beginning in 2014, the affordability penalty assessed on employers for not offering an affordable plan in accordance with the established Safe Harbor methods will be $3,000 per employee on an annual basis.

According to White, “Under the ACA, premium subsidies are not available to individuals who are enrolled in or are eligible for coverage through their employer, as long as that coverage meets eligibility, affordability and minimum value standards. Additionally, premium subsidies are not available to employees earning more than 400 percent of the federal poverty level.”

The way in which premium subsidies will work remains unclear.

In order for the employer to be fined, the employee must receive a subsidy from the “Exchange” – federal or state. How this will work is also unclear.

Penalties can be enacted for companies considered to be large employers - an employer who has 50 or more full-time employees or full-time equivalents. The city presently has 46 full-time employees and seven full-time equivalents, putting them at 53 eligible employees and into the large employer bracket.

White estimated the employee only contribution (coverage for the employee only) would decrease from $155.71 to $90.96, while the employer contribution would increase from $290.91 to $355.66, based on the Federal poverty Safe Harbor amount of 9.5 percent of the employee’s salary.

Based on White’s calculations, this would lead to an increase in basic insurance rates for the city of $64.75 per employee or a total increase for the 2014/2015 fiscal year of $3,431.75, based on 53 employees.

For the purpose of discovering whether the city is or is not a large employer, White’s calculations indicate there are currently 33 employees enrolled in the city’s insurance plan. Additional employees, who are currently covered under a spouse’s insurance or through some other insurance plan, are also included for the purpose of determining large employer status and bring the total to 46 full-time employees.

The number of part-time employees equals an additional seven full-time equivalents, bringing the total up to 53, which exceeds the minimum of 50 employees in determining that the city is a large employer under the ACA guidelines.

Also based on White’s calculations, the city would pay $165,404 on their current health plan on the 33 employees enrolled today. With the change in the number of employees as of January 1, 2014, the cost will be $226,200 –– an increase of $60,796 or nearly 37 percent.

White indicated the employees could opt for a higher level of insurance, if they chose to do so, but would be responsible for the additional cost above the basic insurance plan offered by the city.

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