HS_Holiday_Cheer_2011The High Springs Police Department made about a dozen house calls last Tuesday morning, delivering gaily decorated bags of Christmas gifts to area families.

HIGH SPRINGS – Christmas will be a little brighter this year for a number of families in the High Springs area.  Thanks to the generosity of the community and efforts of the High Springs Police Department (HSPD), not only did Santa receive a helping hand with his seasonal gift giving, area children benefitted from the gifts.

The HSPD has been hosting Operation Holiday Cheer for the past few years. Through the department’s toy drive, officers collect donations to bring holiday joy to High Springs families in need. HSPD Chief William Benck said it's a project the community really gets behind.

The department accepted donations through last Friday, and with the assistance of several elves, delivered the giftwrapped presents Tuesday morning to about a dozen families.

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ALACHUA COUNTY – The Alachua County Sheriff’s Office is reminding the public that this is the time of year that Florida’s moderate climate brings lots of visitors to the state.  Not all are just here to enjoy that climate, though.  Now is the time that authorities begin to see groups or families of organized criminals soliciting door-to-door.  These groups tend to target the elderly population with roof repairs, asphalt sealing or repair and tree trimming services.

These criminals tend to use high-pressure sales techniques and travel from town to town.  Oftentimes they show up at the victim’s door claiming to have materials that were left over from a previous job and offering discount work.  Once they make a deal they try to confuse the victim to extort more money or when finished claim to have done more work and need more money.  The jobs done are usually useless, substandard or they create more of a problem than previously existed.  These groups tend to be hard for law enforcement to identify and move from the area quickly.

Here are some tips to watch out for.

  •  Solicitors going door-to-door
  •  Unsolicited offers of home repair
  •  High pressure sales tactics
  •  Clean, new vehicles with out-of-state license plates
  •  Area codes from outside the area and toll free numbers
  •  Left over materials claims
  •  Requests for payments in cash

If you suspect or experience this activity call the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office at 352-955-1818 immediately.

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GAINESVILLE – A new transportation system surtax may be added to the county’s sales tax to make road and transportation improvements countywide.  The tax would generate an estimated $30 million countywide, with about half going directly toward the County’s projects.  The remainder would be split among each municipality, using a formula accounting for a city’s population and roadway miles.

The tax is aimed at tackling an estimated $380 million backlog of road improvements throughout the county.

David Cerlanek, the assistant public works director for Alachua County, presented the possible tax to the Hawthorne and Alachua city commissions on Dec. 6 and Dec. 12 respectively.

At the direction of the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC), the Alachua County’s Public Works Department has recommended a 1-cent countywide tax that would last at least 10 years.

This tax would be added to the current sales tax of 6.25 percent, and its uses could be put toward any projects that involve transportation, such as a countywide bus system, road and bridge construction and maintenance, capital debt service and a fixed guide way rapid transit system.

In the City of Alachua, the surtax would net an estimated $1 million annually for road projects, Cerlanek said.  Out of its own portion of the surtax, the County would fund other projects, although they may be located within a particular municipality.  Cerlanek noted that topping the County staff’s list of projects was several in and around the City of Alachua, including County Road 237, NW 156 Avenue, Peggy Road and County Road 235A.

Alachua Vice Mayor Ben Boukari, Jr. said he was concerned that the surtax might be used for projects other than those presented or that the projects may only be loosely related to transportation.

In response, Cerlanek said the County staff’s proposed projects are focused on “pavement management.”  The projects might include drainage if there’s a need or roadway shoulder repair.  Sidewalk repair or construction, he said, would be limited to those specifically on or crossing a roadway where safety and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act is concerned.

The initiative would allow the County and cities like Alachua and Hawthorne to make the improvements sooner rather than later by obtaining a bond and pledging a portion of the future taxes.  Such an option allows for immediate construction instead of waiting for the money to come in from the tax throughout the years.

Hawthorne City Manager Ellen Vause suggested the commission would focus on the most heavily used streets within the city limits. She said the purchase of a motor grader to flatten and maintain dirt roads may also be added to the list of projects.

“From the city manager standpoint, the revenue that this tax would generate from the city would be significant in helping us resurface our roads here,” she said. “This will be the only opportunity to do a wide-scale resurfacing of the city streets.”

Alachua County’s Public Works Department has already attended community meetings and met with city staff members around the county pitching the idea. A draft of the community-wide project list is scheduled to be completed in January 2012.  County officials hope that by the end of May, each city will have passed interlocal agreements, which would detail how the tax revenues would be split across the county.

County commissioners would need to pass a final ordinance and ballot language by the end of July for inclusion on the Nov. 6, 2012 general election ballot.

Vause said she hopes citizens will see the benefit of this surtax and will support its progress.

“This sales tax would go beyond our community,” she said. “Travelers and buyers from all over Alachua County will add to the money earned. Everyone contributes to it so it wouldn’t rest on the shoulders of the citizens.”

During his presentation, Cerlanek said he hopes community leaders will step up and provide consistent and accurate information to as many interested community groups as time allows.

This new surtax would differ from the local government infrastructure surtax in that it will only focus on transportation operations, maintenance and construction. The infrastructure surtax can be used for acquiring land, new capital facilities and their improvements and engineering costs. It is not used for operations and maintenance.

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Newberry_Parde_2011  Crowds lined the streets of Newberry Saturday for the city’s colorful holiday parade.  Bands and color guards, horse-led carriages and even a boat participated in the town’s annual celebration.

 NEWBERRY – Christmas came to Newberry early this year as the community turned out to celebrate its annual holiday parade Saturday.  The seasonal festivities not only included businesses and not-for-profit organizations, but dogs and horses were welcomed as well.

Flashing multicolored lights and piercing sirens alerted parade goers lining the street that the parade was starting.  Police officers on motorcycles roared down the street, clearing the way. Newberry Mayor Bill Conrad tossed candy to the crowd, waving and smiling at excited youngsters dashing for the sweets.

The Newberry Girl Scouts, Junior Olympic Archery Development and Newberry Lions Club were among the groups that joined in the festivities. The First Baptist Church of Newberry’s float depicted the nativity scene complete with a young woman dressed in biblical garb with a baby cradled in her arms.

For the city’s fifth annual Festival of Lights, residents enjoyed carriage rides and for the little ones, a visit from Santa Claus. The line to see Santa quickly grew as children with parents in tow waited to see the jolly old elf and have a picture taken with him.

Local vendors set up their tents alongside sidewalks, selling their goods to the crowd.  Tere Beaudreau, owner of Dancin’ Dogs, a pet sitting and daycare located in Jonesville, had a small tent hear the parade route, and sold dog treats and gifts baskets. She said the festival was a good way to gain exposure for her business and take advantage of the number of people attending the festivities.

“We didn’t sell a lot, but we had fun,” she said.

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GAINESVILLE – After a five month investigation, in a statement released Tuesday, State Attorney Bill Cervone said Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) had not violated Florida’s Sunshine Law.

The investigation was the result of allegations by Ward Scott, an Alachua resident and former candidate for county commission.  Among Scott’s allegations were that the BOCC uses informal meetings to discuss matters, reach conclusions and make decisions on which they will later take a formal vote.  Cervone, however, says no laws were broken.

“Each of the meetings in question was held in a completely open and public setting, with citizens and media able to attend.

“Each was recorded and resulted in minutes being taken.

“Each complied with the letter of the law as well as with applicable provisions of the County Commission's own rules and by-laws,” Cervone wrote of the four specific meetings reportedly cited by Scott’s complaint.

Cervone also noted that the findings are not only that of his office, but of others as well saying, “They are shared by Pat Gleason, an Assistant Attorney General [of Florida]…”

“My office consulted with Ms. Gleason, who reviewed everything involved, not because of any ambiguity or uncertainty but because she is an independent expert in these matters.

“Her conclusion, as was mine, is that no criminal violation has occurred,” Cervone wrote.

Cervone seemingly attempts to quell what he views as hype by Scott and others who have criticized the BOCC for allegedly reaching conclusive decisions before formal hearings.

“Much has been made by the complainants about the ‘crystallization’ of votes at informal meetings.

“There is nothing illegal about any discussions between Commissioners at public, noticed meetings, even if those discussions reference pending votes,” he said.

Cervone said crystallization condemns the commission secretly talking about and agreeing upon a vote.  But, he said, commissioners discussing their positions and intended or likely votes is not prohibited.

“Nothing precludes Commissioners from such public discussion and debate about their positions.

“Indeed, it would be foolish to suggest that Commissioners could not have a public dialogue about their positions and intentions on issues coming before them for a vote,” said Cervone.

In a follow-up response to Cervone, Scott said the state attorney’s conclusion misses the point.

Scott notes that the Sunshine Law requires the BOCC to provide “reasonable notice” of meetings and that courts interpreting the statute have underscored the principle of due process.

“A list of meetings of the week doesn’t fly,” Scott wrote.

“While informal meetings were technically noticed, the style of notice kept citizens in the dark about serious business before the commission, like the gas tax.

“Therefore the notice was not ‘reasonable.’

“Due process was not provided,” Scott contended.

He was also critical of how the County kept records of the meetings saying, “while minutes were technically kept, they did not reflect the actual decisions and behaviors of the commissioners,” Scott said, “This behavior could only be detected on the audios, if you knew about them.”

Scott and Cervone both noted, however, that since the issue had been pressed, the BOCC has opted to televise and provide agendas for informal meetings.

Cervone’s conclusion and statement Tuesday comes on the heels of a Dec. 7 request by Scott to have the investigation turned over to an outside agency.

“I hereby request that your office provide me with the necessary instructions to request that your formal investigation now be transferred to the proper agency of the State of Florida, so that this investigation can move on as unencumbered by case load, or politics, as possible,” Scott said in an e-mail to Cervone’s office.

Scott reiterated in his response Tuesday that he wants the matter reviewed by a party outside of Alachua County.

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HIGH SPRINGS – After more than a year without a permanent city manager, High Springs city commissioners are gearing up to review yet another round of hopefuls who have applied for the post.  In all, 31 candidates submitted their resumes by the Nov. 30 deadline.

The position attracted applicants from as far away as Monterey, California and as local as High Springs.  Candidates include current and former city and town managers and administrators.  W.D. Higginbotham, Jr., who served as Gainesville’s city manager for about four years in the 1980s, also applied.

At a special meeting last week, commissioners decided to schedule a workshop for Jan. 10, 2012 to determine how they will narrow the list. Paul Sharon, a Range Rider with the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), has pared the list down to nine candidates who meet the criteria set by the commission several months ago.

Salaries for several of those candidates recommended by Sharon exceed the salary range set by the commission.  With a budgeted annual salary range of $50,000 - $72,000, commissioners said they were concerned that interviewing candidates expecting more could leave the city in yet another lurch.

Both Commissioner Linda Gestrin and Vice Mayor Bob Barnas said they didn’t necessarily agree with a decision by Sharon to exclude local candidates from his list of the top nine applicants.

Gestrin’s confidence in Sharon to help the city in hiring its next city manager also seemed to waiver.  Gestrin and others on the commission have stated that they would like to see the City move away from the strong city manager form of government it currently has.   “This is the only form of government he believes in.  I’m not so sure this has served us really well.  Now we’re in debt.  Our funds are drained.  The list is long,” she said.

The cities of Alachua and Gainesville and several others in the area use the strong city manager form of government, leaving administrative duties, such as hiring and personnel matters to up to a top administrator while general policy decisions are handled by the commission.  The strong city manager concept aims to prevent commission politics from creeping into administrative decisions.

Uncertainties about how the city is to proceed with the hiring process led commissioners to schedule the workshop.

Mayor Dean Davis wanted to know when extensive background checks would be conducted, the length of the city manager’s probationary period, what kind of severance would be included in the contract and how the accrual of vacation and sick pay would be handled.

On Nov. 24, in a controversial move, commissioners voted 3-2 to hire local resident Jeri Langman at about $4,400 monthly to fill the role of interim city manager.  Langman replaced Jenny Parham who was serving double duty as the interim manager and city clerk.

Parham said she would stay on as the interim until the commission could find a permanent city manager.  As the interim, Parham was being paid about $1,500 monthly in addition to her salary as city clerk.  A 24-year-veteran employee of the city, she remains the clerk today.

Parham had been serving as interim city manager since former city manager Jim Drumm resigned under pressure in September 2010.

The Jan. 10 meeting is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. according to the city’s website.

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ALACHUA – Motorists driving through Alachua in the coming months will undoubtedly experience road construction in various spots throughout the city.

City of Alachua transportation infrastructure was the subject of discussion at a recent city commission meeting.  The commission authorized $247,000 in the City’s FY 2011-12 budget for street resurfacing of an asphalt overlay of existing roadways.  These funds will pay for $50,000 for resurfacing 1,000 lineal feet of streets within the city’s Community Redevelopment Area (CRA), $152,000 for resurfacing 3,000 lineal feet of streets outside the CRA and $45,000 for chip-sealing unpaved roads in Alachua.

Resurfacing a road involves putting an asphalt overlay on top of an existing roadway and comes at an average cost of $50 - $55 per foot of roadway. Street segments within the CRA to be resurfaced include 800 feet along NW 148 Place from State Road 235 to NW 142 Terrace or 875 feet along NW 145 Avenue from NW 142 Terrace to NW 145 Terrace.

Street segments outside the CRA to be resurfaced are 300 feet along NW 125 Street from NW 147 Lane to US Highway 441, 1,300 feet along NW 141 Street from NW 154 Avenue to NW 158 Avenue; 500 feet along NW 147 Avenue from NW 135 Terrace to NW 137 Terrace; 700 feet along NW 135 Terrace from US Highway 441 to NW 147 Avenue; and 450 feet along NW 137 Terrace from NW 147 Avenue to NW 146 Avenue.

Chip-sealing refers to covering unpaved roads with a gravel-type asphalt mix and costs significantly less than asphalt paving.  With chip seals, a thin film of heated asphalt liquid is sprayed on the road surface, followed by the placement of small chips, which are then compacted onto the asphalt, and excess stone is swept from the surface.

The cost for chip-sealing is significantly less than for asphalt paving at a cost of $85,000 per mile of chip sealing versus $300,000 or more per mile for asphalt paving.

The City of Alachua maintains six miles of unpaved roads. This year’s funding level will enable the City to chip-seal approximately 2,800 feet of unpaved road. Roads selected for the chip-sealing process are NW 150 Avenue from Burnetts Lake Road to NW 128 Street.

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