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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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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ALACHUA – The Alachua County Commission reopened discussions on proposed changes to the Boundary Adjustment Act (BAA), a special law that regulates annexations in Alachua County. Passed by the State Legislature in 1990 as an answer to rein in growing urbanized areas outside of city limits, the Act is unique to Alachua County and does not apply to any other area of the state.

The local delegation to the State Legislature declined to introduce earlier proposed changes in 2009 after two municipalities spoke against it.

One of the suggested amendments is to change how frequently the urban reserve areas are reviewed. Under the Act, a reserve area is the unincorporated property around a given city that is urbanized or expected to become urbanized. Property within a municipality’s urban reserve area is supposed to be primed for future annexation under the terms of the Act. County officials are proposing that reserve areas are reviewed and updated every 10 years rather than every five years as the Act currently requires, said Ken Zeichner, Alachua County’s principal planner.

Also proposed is creating a new section to make it easier to process the annexation of enclaves, which are unincorporated areas surrounded by land that is part of a municipality. In part, the Act aims to reduce and prevent enclaves as they often create confusion and difficulty in determining what entity is responsible for providing various services to the parcels of land, including police and fire protection.

The county’s appointed committee reviewed the Act in 2008-2009.

Alachua County Commissioner Chuck Chestnut, who was a member of the State Legislature at the time, explained how earlier proposed changes failed to make it into the BAA.

Chestnut said although the amendments had unanimous support from the municipalities, changes failed after commissioners from High Springs and Micanopy went to Tallahassee and spoke against it.

“They thought if they spoke against it that it would end the Boundary Adjustment Act in Alachua County – period,” Chestnut said.

The local delegation to the State Legislature decided in 2009 that unless the county and all nine municipalities agreed, then they were not going to introduce the bill.

The Alachua County Commission hopes to minimize dissent and that all nine municipalities in the county will support the proposed revisions to the BAA. But uniform support for changes doesn’t appear to exist. Jean Calderwood, the former mayor and commissioner of the City of Alachua, said she favors complete repeal of the Act. Pointing to more evolved state laws that now exist, she said the BAA is simply too cumbersome.

At the time the Act was first adopted, Florida’s general laws did not provide for certain planning mechanisms. In the time since the early 1990s, however, the State has vastly expanded its planning and annexation laws, which apply to the rest of Florida, Calderwood argues.

“My position is that it still should be repealed and not revised,” Calderwood said, noting that the state’s general annexation and planning laws are sufficient.

At one time, she was also a member of the county’s taskforce charged with proposing revisions to the Act and removal of outdated language.

The Boundary Adjustment Act makes annexation slower and more expensive than the general statute. It only affects citizens who want to annex their property voluntarily into another city in the county, she said.

LaCrosse officials too have had their concerns with the boundary adjustment act.

Mayor Dianne Dubberly said her city ran into difficulty when they tried to annex a property known as “Praise Ranch.”  She said if the county doesn’t believe the annexation request is compliant with the Act then it can protest. If it can’t otherwise settle the dispute, then the county can take the annexing city to court – as it did. It was eventually annexed, but it came with hefty legal fees that can strap a small city, said Dubberly.

The town council has expressed an interest in seeing the entire Boundary Adjustment Act repealed and going with the state statute that addresses annexation, Dubberly said.

“We [Alachua County] are the exception to the rule,” she said. “Everyone else is going by the state rule.”

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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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Vulcan Materials, located in Newberry on County Road 235, successfully appealed its 2012 tax assessment, leaving the City of Newberry in a financial bind.

NEWBERRY – The City of Newberry must deal with a $312,297 loss in tax revenue as the budget year comes to an end in September. The blow came when the taxable value of a major industrial taxpayer, Vulcan Materials Co., formerly known as Florida Rock, was cut nearly in half.

“The difficult part for the city is the timing,” said City Manager Keith Ashby.

“The money is important, and we will have to consider how we make up the amount of money that we have lost, but if we had known at the beginning of the tax year we could just adjust.

“When I’m told three quarters of the way through the budget year, there’s no way to recover.”

While the tax collector mails tax bills at the end of November, that bill represents the year that was just completed, said John Power, the chief deputy tax collector. Newberry, like all other cities, creates its budget months before they receive this bill, acting upon a summer-time preliminary tax roll calculation.

But the devaluation of the Florida Rock property came late in the budget year because it was the result of an appeal by the owner, not the initial valuation by Alachua County Property Appraiser Ed Crapo. The lower value came down from the value adjustment board, a third party that can adjust the property appraiser’s taxable values for properties.

“It’s not that the date is so important,” Power said, but the county’s value adjustment board changed the taxable value of one of Newberry’s largest tax contributors from nearly $174 million to $88.35 million, and Newberry found out in June that it lost about 20 percent of its tax revenues on which it was already operating.

“You know, they say not to put your eggs all in one basket?” Power said. “This is a big egg for Newbery, and it just got cut in half.”

Vulcan Materials approached the county’s value adjustment board because it believed the facility’s taxes were too high, said Crapo.

The major devalue came from how the value adjustment board evaluated the Florida Rock property and the board’s magistrate will present the reasons behind the devaluation.

Crapo believes the magistrate’s recommendation to devalue Florida Rock was “misapplying both the law and appraisal theory.”

Crapo said as an example, the law requires pollution control equipment to be valued a certain way and believes that in 2011 and possibly in 2012 as well, the magistrate misapplied the process.

“The magistrate called such equipment an exemption, and it’s not,” said Crapo.

The appraisers have access to a list of equipment that is appraised differently from the facility, he said. “I think it was done wrong.”

Another aspect involves a tax representative hired by the company who works with the board, and is the same person who approached the same magistrate to lower the 2011 value, said Crapo.

“There are a number of different errors that have been made in their arrival at this evaluation,” he said.

“It’s not right that the rest of us have to pay their share of the taxes, because they are unwilling to do so,” said Crapo.

Crapo has already filed litigation against the company, Vulcan Materials Co., for the year 2011 when the property was devalued by $47.7 million.

He promises to file suit for 2012 because the property was devalued $85.38 million.

It will begin a “huge two year process of working through the court system,” he said.

“I’m asking the courts to determine what’s right and what’s wrong because I believe what the value adjustment board is doing is grossly wrong.”

Further complicating the situation, the city isn’t usually involved in filing suit for tax values, so the appraiser must support the set tax values in front of the board to give taxing authorities, like Newberry, “some bit of stability,” he said.

Crapo had discussions with the city last summer when the 2011 devaluation occurred referencing the possibility that it may occur again in the future.

A refund of tax revenues is problematic for a municipality because of the timing of the appraisal appeals process.

“It’s a hardship; it’s a very difficult place to be in.

“But the litigation would solve the question for many years going forward,” said Crapo.

Ashby says he wishes the appraisal appeals process could be pushed back so that municipalities could be informed as soon as possible after budgets have been set.

“Then I would have 10 months to recover,” said Ashby.

Now the only viable option is the city’s reserves, he said.

“The truth of the matter is Newberry’s reserves are in good shape – probably in the best shape of any city in the area.

“But the fact of the matter of is, that is where the money will come from.”

Losing more than $300,000 is about 21 percent of the city’s $1.3 million in ad valorem tax revenue, and the city won’t know the full picture of consequences until the end of the year.

“When I build a budget for the next year I’m going to put a delta in the budget that says ‘I think I’m going to take another hit.

“And at least that way even if I get bad news at least I am prepared,” said Ashby.

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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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An overturned tractor-trailer closed down the I75 northbound exit ramp at U.S. 441in Alachua Saturday.

ALACHUA – The northbound exit ramp at U.S. 441 was blocked Saturday following a single-vehicle accident.

 Israel Rivera-Colon, 55, of Haines City, Fla., was driving a tractor-trailer transporting a tanker on Interstate 75. While trying to follow the exit ramp, Rivera-Colon overturned the 2007 International tractor on its driver’s side at about 6 a.m., according to Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) records.  

The exit ramp was closed, but the FHP encouraged alternate routes at the State Road 222 exit at the 390 mile post, or the County Road 236 exit at the 404 mile post.

Rivera-Colon was taken to North Florida Regional Medical Center to be treated for minor injuries. He was cited for careless driving, which carries a $154 fine in Alachua County. He will also get points on his license, said FHP spokeswoman Tracy Hisler-Pace. His vehicle sustained about $78,000 worth of damage.

Hisler-Pace said she wasn't aware of any hazardous material in the tanker.

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