HIGH SPRINGS – Despite efforts by High Springs commissioners Sue Weller and Scott Jamison for the City’s emergency dispatch to remain with the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office Combined Communications Center (CCC), they were outvoted 3-2.  Mayor Dean Davis, Vice-Mayor Bob Barnas and Commissioner Linda Gestrin remained steadfast to have the High Springs emergency police dispatch return to the city.  The expectation is that the City will activate their system on Oct. 1, 2012.

According to a presentation conducted by High Springs Police Chief Steve Holley on Monday, July 2, the City estimates cost of local operations will be $90,267 this budget year through Sept. 30.  On an annualized basis, the cost will be $235,075, compared to $84,075 currently spent with the CCC, an increase of more than $150,000 annually.

During the special Monday meeting, Commissioner Scott Jamison attempted to convince his fellow commissioners to rescind the previous motion that cancelled services with the CCC.

The motion failed to pass, even though Jamison and Weller advocated against a city-operated dispatch due to budgetary concerns. Davis said the letter stating the City’s intent to separate from the CCC had already been hand-delivered by Holley prior to the meeting to the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO).

However, Holley said ACSO would have no problem letting the City back into the CCC agreement in the future, if the City should decide to return.

“With the economic times that we are in right now, it is paramount that we plan, not spend,” Jamison said. “I’m concerned with the haste by which we are trying to do this. This is the first we’ve had numbers that show what it was going to cost this year.”

According to figures presented by Holley, future costs of the required technology break down to $52,206 for a Motobridge console, which Motorola offered to finance for the City; $39,200 for CAD software, with yearly maintenance totaling $4,200; $1,200 for cabinets to be rebuilt and $2,000 for telephone upgrades.

Within the next year, the police radios will also have to be upgraded. For 13 radios, the total cost will be $71,279. Additional smaller expenses, such as the price of training manuals and uniforms, would also have to be tallied into the cost required to start dispatch.

If all of the potential applicants require training, the City can expect to pay $44,392 for employee salaries for time spent in training, according to the budget provided by staff.

Gestrin had cited concerns that when the High Springs population trips over 6,000 residents, the CCC cost per call will increase from $14.75 to $24.26.  The City expects to trip that threshold in the next five years, but even so, the cost savings of the CCC would remain at an estimated $100,000 or more annually.  In the meantime, before High Springs trips that 6,000 population threshold, the City would expect to save between $130,000 and $145,000 annually, by remaining with the CCC.

Some estimates project that reopening the city’s emergency dispatch center will cost in excess of $600,000 more than the CCC over the next four years.

The total cost of an in-house emergency dispatch service is estimated at $1.3 million through September 2016.  On the other hand, sticking with the CCC would only cost an estimated $653,000 for the same time period, including a higher per call rate for the last of those four years.

High Springs Finance Services Director Helen McIver reported that the City is experiencing a shortfall in revenue for the current year, but it is not as large as had been previously projected. Some departments have had cost savings, but she could not say the City would definitely have the required funds.

“We’re still willing to go into an expenditure of this type with question marks,” Jamison said. “I don’t think anyone would run their home budget the way we are talking about here.”

Jamison said he wasn’t advocating never bringing the dispatch back into the City, but that it was not prudent to do it currently.

Despite safety concerns expressed by High Springs police officers regarding bringing the dispatch back locally, a split commission voted to do just that on May 22.  Davis, Barnas and Gestrin supported bringing the dispatch center back to the City and Weller and Jamison voted against the motion. Commissioners in favor of bringing the dispatch back cited various reasons, including keeping autonomy, avoiding address changes and providing local knowledge.

However, on July 2, Barnas said he would be in favor of remaining with the CCC if the sheriff’s department allowed the city to keep the same addresses and raised the cut-off number from 6,000 to 10,000 before the cost of CCC service fee increased.

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Decisive meeting set for July 10

 HIGH SPRINGS – Following a discussion on June 28 about potential Charter amendments, with criticism leveled at the City’s current city manager form of government, the High Springs Commission decided to move forward with a special meeting to consider terminating current city manager Jeri Langman.

Just two weeks earlier during a June 14 meeting, Vice-Mayor Bob Barnas asked if commissioners were unhappy with the city manager, and no one spoke up. The agenda item, which concerned the city manager as well as the city clerk and city attorney, was dismissed.

Yet at the June 28 meeting, the issue was raised again.

“Obviously, we put a city manager in place as an interim city manager and then as a permanent city manager. Did we make a mistake? Yes or no, it will be debated forever and ever. Barnas said.  “But, the question now becomes, as another commissioner put it, Mr. Mayor, is it working for us?

“Do we start a process now and look for a city manager or do we wait until after the election? It’s my contention that we start a process now.”

The commission scheduled a special meeting for Tuesday, July 10, to discuss the hiring process for a new city manager, and Barnas directed City Attorney Raymond Ivey to draft a resolution terminating current city manager Langman.

If the resolution does not pass, Barnas said “everything can go back to normal.”  However, he said his fellow commissioners should consider that the City is looking at Charter amendments because of the actions the city manager has taken.

Earlier in the June 28 meeting, several commissioners suggested rewriting Section 3.04 of the City Charter, which outlines city manager duties. Mayor Dean Davis and Commissioner Linda Gestrin pushed for a stronger commission, with the power to act as a liaison between departments and City officials.

During the June 14 meeting, a similar discussion took place, with Weller and Jamison stating that the city manager enforces policies based on the decisions made by the commission. The commission authorizes the budget, decides whether to raise fees and decides where the money goes, Jamison said.

“If we’re going to blame someone, we need to look in the mirror,” he said at the time.

If the commission moves forward with terminating Langman and searching for a new city manager, the commission will be looking for a candidate with a strong financial background, as well as experience in city administration work. Commissioner Sue Weller said she would not be in favor of hiring a new city manager unless the person came from outside of High Springs.

“It seems like you’re putting the cart ahead of the horse,” Commissioner Scott Jamison said. “I’ve never been in a place where you actually kept [an employee] and went out, hired somebody, did the whole bid and then came back and say, ‘Okay, see you later.’”

Gestrin said that when the commission hired Langman as the city manager, they placed a deadline of November. She also said that the City cannot wait until the last minute to begin searching for a replacement.  She added that Langman would be welcome to reapply for the job.

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W_-_July_4_2012_CoverfinALACHUA – The Alachua night will once again be lighted by the fantastic burning colors of summer as the city celebrates its 13th annual Fourth of July Celebration.

The celebration will be held Wednesday from 3 p.m.-10 p.m. at the Hal Brady Recreation Complex and is expected to draw around 15,000 people.  The fireworks display will begin at 9:30 p.m. and run for about a half hour.

Adam Boukari, Alachua assistant city manager, said this year’s $20,000 budget for the celebration is the largest in the 13-year history of the event, consisting of approximately $15,000 from donations and $5,000 from vendors paying to set up booths at the event.

Boukari said that residents may park at Legacy Field at the Hal Brady Recreation Complex as they do every year, and that this year special measures will be taken to aid in a smoother flow of traffic.

Attendees will now enter Legacy Field from Peggy Road/ County Road 2054. After the event, eastbound traffic on Peggy Road will be suspended until the traffic clears, providing attendees with two full lanes of westbound traffic leaving the event.  Alachua Police Department officers will be manually operating traffic signasl to further ease the flow of traffic.

The celebration will feature four live musical acts running from 4 p.m.-9 p.m. and a free Kid’s Corner station from 3 p.m.-7 p.m.  Approximately 60 vendors will have booths at the event, with most of them offering samplings of the local fare.

The Alachua Police Department will temporarily move its command center to the basketball courts at the Hal Brady Recreation Complex to quell any disturbances and assist attendees in finding lost children.

Additional information about the event and “The Largest Small Town Fireworks Display in America” is available at the City of Alachua’s Web site at www.cityofalachua.com.

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City approves four-way stop

ALACHUA – Alachua commissioners nixed plans Monday for a roundabout in lieu of a four-way stop at the intersection of NW 142nd Terrace and 150th Avenue near City Hall.  Citing concerns of pedestrian safety and the additional construction cost, commissioners unanimously voted to maintain the four-way stop as it is now, even after the intersection is reconstructed.

The roundabout had been years in the making and was part of a larger project to reconstruct NW 142nd Terrace from the intersection all the way to U.S. Highway 441. Funding for the project is provided through a tax increment district managed by the City of Alachua Downtown Redevelopment Trust Board (DRTB), which provides recommendations for projects within the downtown district.

The commission also approved the intersection along with plans to renovate the surrounding areas.  The approved renovation plans, which are currently 90 percent complete, include provisions for landscaping improvements and the installation of a storm water storage facility underneath the baseball field on 142nd Terrace.

The commission chose to forgo the construction of a roundabout only after extensive discussion and public comment.  Several commissioners and Alachua residents alike expressed concerns that the roundabout, while aesthetically pleasing, would be more dangerous to pedestrians than a four-way stop intersection.

“We want to be sure that all pedestrians are safe,” Commissioner Shirley Green Brown said.

According to the presentation by Monique Heathcock of Causseaux Hewett and Walpole (CHW), the roundabout would calm traffic more smoothly than a full-stop intersection, while also lessening the severity of any car accidents that might occurr at the intersection.  However, Heathcock noted the construction of the roundabout would cost the City an additional $75,000, while forcing drivers to acclimate themselves to a new type of intersection.

According to Heathcock’s presentation, a four-way stop is cheaper and safer for pedestrians.  However, the existing plans called for a roundabout and must now undergo a four-to-six week redesign to accommodate for the four-way stop.

Along with the four-way stop and roundabout, CHW also offered a third option, a two-way stop which would not impede northbound or southbound traffic on NW 142nd Terrace.  The two-way stop option was largely ignored during the commission’s discussion.

The commission also voted to allow the plans to be open to bidding from construction contractors once the plans are 100 percent complete.

The plans for improvement for the area surrounding the intersection include the addition of several trees along 142nd Terrace and the installation of a facility which would store rainwater beneath the Skinner Park baseball field, alleviating some flooding and allowing the water to percolate into the soil.

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Tropical Storm Debby’s soaking rain swamped NE 1st Avenue near U.S. Highway 441 in High Springs, forcing the road’s closure on Tuesday.

ALACHUA – Following the deluge by Tropical Storm Debby, area residents awakened Wednesday, June 27 to what seemed like the first rays of sunshine in days.  As Debby churned over the Gulf of Mexico, the meandering storm dropped massive amounts of rain across north central Florida.

Although much of northern Florida and southern Georgia have experienced long-term drought conditions, Tropical Storm Beryl, which skirted the area in May and this week’s Tropical Storm Debby have left Alachua County waterlogged.

Debby’s downpour was enough to cause localized flooding in some places and even more widespread flooding in locales such as Live Oak, Fla., where much of that city’s downtown area remained under water through Wednesday.  By the evening of Tuesday, June 26, NE 1st Avenue near U.S. Highway 441 in High Springs was underwater and forced a road closure.  One of the entrances to the Woodland Oaks neighborhood in Alachua was closed due to flooding of a nearby creek that flows into Burnett’s Lake.

The Santa Fe River, meanwhile, has seen a significant increase in volume and flow.  That’s a far cry from where it was just one month ago when record water level lows prompted an emergency meeting by Florida water experts.

But as of Wednesday evening, the Santa Fe River was continuing to rise and measured at 35.76 feet at 6 p.m.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expects river levels to continue rising.  The agency predicts the Santa Fe River near Fort White, Fla. will crest Saturday evening at 31.4 feet, categorized as a major flood stage in that area.   The river has not reached such a level in that area since Feb. 26, 1998 when it reached 32.98 feet and Sept. 16, 1964 when it reached 36.20 feet according to NOAA historical records.  The unusually active hurricane season of 2004 caused river levels near Fort White to reach 30.42 feet on Sept 12, 2004.  NOAA did not have flood stage and historical data on the Santa Fe River near High Springs at U.S. 441.

Alachua County Environmental Protection Department (EPD) Director Chris Bird said the heavy rains have triggered numerous sinkholes throughout the county.  His office is asking the general public to report sinkholes to EPD using an online reporting system available on the County’s website.

A large portion of western Alachua County, which sits above karst underground rock formations, is susceptible to sinkhole formations, especially when conditions are dry and the water table is low.  Substantial rainfalls within a short period of time weighs down and ultimately causes the topsoil and underpinning limestone to collapse, Bird explained.

The rain is likely to help bring water levels up a bit, but Bird warns that Debby’s rain won’t cure the area’s water woes.

“No one should get any false hopes that this one rain is going to solve all of our water issues,” he said, adding that the rain came at such a high volume over such a short time that he believes only a small fraction of the water is going to make it into the aquifer because most of it will evaporate or flow down the river and out to sea.

More specifically to High Springs, Bird said that just because the Santa Fe River is rising doesn’t mean the aquifer is at the same pace.

As Debby moved off the east coast of Florida Wednesday, the slow-moving storm left a soggy north central Florida in its wake.  With river levels continuing to rise into the weekend, additional flood damage is expected.

No other tropical storms appear to be looming nearby, but the National Hurricane Center is watching a tropical wave currently moving across the tropical central Atlantic.

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Avoids Charter review board

HIGH SPRINGS – Several High Spring commissioners challenged the City Manager form of government during Thursday’s meeting, and discussed possible Charter changes to be placed on the November ballot.

By State law, Charter amendments must be approved by the electorate.  But this year, because of limited space on the ballot, the City is limited to two Charter amendments.

The commission intends to select what they view as the most important of commissioner-suggested changes, and those changes will then be voted on by the general public during the election.

Vice-Mayor Bob Barnas suggested a workshop on Monday, July 9, to solidify the changes suggested during the Thursday meeting.

Mayor Dean Davis said the Charter had been changed several times over the years, and High Springs is now bound by laws designed for much larger cities.

“We need to come back through the commission with everything,” Davis said. “We need a little more oversight.”

Davis, Barnas and Gestrin detailed the sections of the current Charter he or she felt were the weakest, citing Charter Section 3.04 as the crux of the issues surrounding High Springs. Commissioners Sue Weller and Scott Jamison did not recommend changes to the Charter.

“There’s been much said in e-mails, in writing, in the paper about we, the gang of three, want to change the Charter and take over power,” Barnas said. “I don’t have any desire to completely change the Charter back to the other way. What I think we’ve found is that the city manager style of government, while it works for some commissioners, absolutely fails for others because of one clause in the Charter.”

Instead of rewriting the entire Charter, Barnas said all the problems fell on one sentence in Section 3.04 about the duties of the city manager, which states the manager must keep the commission fully advised of activities related to the City, financial conditions of the City, future needs of the City and make recommendations to the commission concerning the affairs as he or she deems desirable.

While former High Springs City Attorney Thomas Depeter said the “deems desirable” refers only to the last section of the sentence, Barnas said the wording creates a loophole that allows to city manager to update commissioners only when she sees fit. Jamison suggested changing the word to “necessary.”

Barnas also suggested removing Section 2.06 concerning commission-employee relations, which states the commission is not allowed to dictate the appointment or removal of a City employee except Charter officers. It also states the commission is not allowed to directly give orders to City employees. However, after Davis expressed concerns about the deletion allowing for conflicting directions to City staff, Barnas said Section 2.06 was not as important as 3.04.

“I think what we’ve experienced – a lot of the misinformation, no information – and I think it’s from the structure of what we’ve built,” Gestrin said. “What I would want is a rewriting of the powers and the duties between the city manager and the commission. All the decisions are made, and the commission is removed from that decision.”

When the taxpayer no longer has a say in what goes on, Gestrin said, the City has lost its representation. She backs creating a stronger commission by rewriting Section 3.04 of the Charter, the section outlining the duties of the city manager.

She said the city operated with a stronger commission in the past, and everyone worked together for the good of the City.

Jamison agrees with the city manager form of government, saying he had no changes to make to the Charter –– as long as it was followed correctly.

“We’re the oversight,” Jamison said. “I think the way the system is now, the citizens have more input than they know because they elect us. It is our job to hold the city manager accountable.”

Davis recommends that each commissioner act as a liaison between the departments and the city commission, as well as approve any transaction over $1,000. He also suggested the commission be allowed to approve the hiring of City employees.

Several High Springs’ residents voiced their anger at the commission for ignoring the current Charter and skipping over a Charter requirement that changes would pass through a citizen Charter Review Board.

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Dean Davis says allegations are unjustified

HIGH SPRINGS – A High Springs Police Department officer has filed a complaint stating that Mayor Dean Davis threatened his job for speaking out against the city commission’s plans to cut ties with the Alachua County Combined Communication Center (CCC) and to return to a local dispatch service.

In a Friday, June 22, memo to High Springs Police Department (HSPD) Chief Steve Holley, Sergeant Antoine Sheppard stated that Mayor Dean Davis commented to another High Springs employee regarding Sheppard’s vocal opposition to the changes with dispatch.

“Mayor Davis stated that I should be careful and eventually I would get in trouble if I did not shut my mouth up about the police dispatch debate,” Sheppard said in his complaint.

“If we had a different Chief of Police here, Antoine would not have a job,” continued Sheppard’s letter, recounting the suspected comments by the High Springs mayor. “Mayor Dean Davis allegedly stated that I was an embarrassment to the Chief and the City for speaking out against the city’s decision to reclaim dispatch and I had no business speaking out anyways.”

The letter continued by stating that Davis said Sheppard would be unable to find employment anywhere else as a result of the City’s actions.

During a May 15 Town Hall Meeting, two HSPD police officers expressed concerns about the safety of a city-operated dispatch. Sergeant Antoine Sheppard and Officer Dustyn Shenk felt that, after working under both the CCC and the previous High Springs dispatch service, the City should remain with the CCC.

In response to the letter by Sheppard, Davis stated in an e-mail, “This is inter-office communication. I see no reason for any action on our part. It is not a formal complaint against the mayor; it is an IOC based on hearsay.”

When questioned about the complaint, Davis said the comments were unjustified, and that Sheppard does not speak for the majority of the police officers.

Unless adequate funding is provided, the city-operated dispatch would put the lives of the officers and High Springs residents in jeopardy, Sheppard said during the Town Hall Meeting. If the City funds the project properly, he said he would welcome a local dispatch.

With a local dispatch, the police department would lose the ability to "ping" phones, automatically track a caller’s location and instantly request back-up from the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office. On May 22, the commission voted to bring the dispatch back to High Springs without information about how much the dispatch would cost or if it would be properly funded.

“When the lives of my fellow officers and citizens are placed in jeopardy, I will NOT remain silent, even if that causes me to lose my employment with the City of High Springs,” Sheppard’s letter stated. “I am 100 percent sure that these comments were made by Mayor Davis.”

On Tuesday, Davis said the comments were taken out of context and became a matter of “he said, she said.”

“I couldn’t fire him if I wanted to,” Davis said. “I’m not against the Police Department. Antoine is a good policeman.”

One reason commissioners were in favor of the local dispatch is that the City would not have to change street names to meet CCC regulations. Commissioner Linda Gestrin said she advocated bringing the dispatch back to the City to create autonomy, and it is a drawing point to people searching for a future hometown that High Springs has its own police department and fire department.

While the commission had approved withdrawing from the CCC and instead operating the dispatch locally, it may not be a done deal. Commissioner Scott Jamison said at a June 19 special commission meeting that he will be placing an item on the upcoming June 28 agenda to rescind the previous decision and discuss staying with the CCC.

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