A contract with Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) dating back to 1988 will likely be extended yet again after Alachua commissioners voted 5-0 Monday night to continue buying its wholesale power from the nearby electric provider.

If approved by the City of Gainesville commission, the most recent changes would mark the third amendment to the long-standing agreement which has apparently returned favorable utility rates for the City of Alachua over the last two years.

The updated agreement extends the contract for 10 years with a five-year opener, which gives either party the option of going back out to market to seek bids.

Public Services Director Mike New said the amendments include fixed costs that will increase 2.5 percent annually after the first year of the new agreement.  But those fixed costs only account for about 20 percent of the total cost of wholesale power.

The largest determining factor in the cost of power is the fuel cost, half of which will be calculated on GRU’s retail fuel charge and the remaining half on the average price of natural gas for the last three days of each month as published by NYMEX then multiplied by GRU’s heat rate for natural gas combustion.  In prior arrangements, the natural gas price component was based on the price of natural gas only on the last day of the month, leading to a higher rate of volatility. 

Both New and consultant William Herrington of WHH Enterprises said the City of Alachua has substantial exposure to the natural gas sector which could lead to volatility and considerable and uncontrollable increases if those rates go up. 

That’s a scenario Herrington seems to think is a foregone conclusion since natural gas has been on an 18-month decline.  He suggested the City consider locking in at least some of its projected natural gas usage over the next few years to avoid a massive increase should supplies tighten.

The City of Alachua has some of the lowest power costs when compared to other cities in Florida.  Over the last year or so, Alachua’s power cost has averaged out to $73.38 per megawatt hour.  Other utilities had costs between $82.37 and $104.78 per megawatt hour. 

Herrington said Alachua’s new agreement won’t bring the lowest rates in the state, but they should remain among the lowest and are competitive, especially considering Alachua’s small size compared to other utilities.  He estimates that Alachua will have an average rate of $71.04 or less per megawatt hour in the next fiscal year under the amendments.

The contract is awaiting approval from the Gainesville City Commission, which is expected to review the matter at a Nov. 18 meeting.  If approved, the agreement would go into effect Jan. 1, 2011.

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The City of High Springs has released police reports detailing the events and accusations that prompted firefighters Kyle Lewis and Michael Steele to resign last week.

The reports tell of vulgar, harassing behavior that allegedly took place behind closed doors at the fire department.

While Lewis, 26, and Steele, 28, said it’s a game fashioned after a scene in a movie they all play, according to others it’s gone too far.

On Oct. 1, the High Springs Police Department (HSPD) responded to a call from Fire Chief Verne Riggall.  A ‘suspicious incident’ report based on the complaint of a third firefighter was filed.  The firefighter, who said he had fallen asleep on the fire station couch, woke up and logged on to his personal laptop to find a new photo on the desktop.

It was a picture of a man’s genitalia being exposed next to his head as he lay asleep on the couch.

At this time, Alachua County Today is withholding the name of the firefighter who filed the complaint leading to the investigation.

Like the two he accused, he has not returned to work since crying foul, Riggall said.

According to city policy and the Florida Firefighters Bill of Rights, he is on administrative leave with pay pending the results of the ongoing administrative investigation by the High Springs Police Department.

When he reported the incident, he named Steele and Lewis as the culprits, and Riggall subsequently placed them both on immediate suspension pending the investigation.

According to HSPD, Steele admitted to being the exhibitionist in the photo, and Lewis said he was the one who took it, but they insisted Steele never actually touched the other man’s head or neck.

After the initial complaint, another firefighter came forward saying he’d been the victim of a similar incident involving Steele and Lewis.

Both of them told police they did not remember what the second accuser was talking about.

On Oct. 4 after lodging the complaint, the firefighter said the alleged incident happened several months ago, and he signed a form indicating “intent not to prosecute.”

Lewis and Steele resigned Oct. 19.

Lewis was a full-time firefighter, and he had worked for the City of High Springs for about three years, Riggall said.

Steele started as a volunteer at the department, and became a part-time employee about three years ago. He is still a full-time employee with Gainesville Fire Rescue (GFR).

According to the City of Gainesville human resources office, he was hired there in February 2007.

Despite growing media coverage about the situation, when GFR Deputy Chief Tim Hayes was contacted for comment on the issue, he said he hadn’t heard anything about it.

He said had he known about it sooner, he would already be investigating whether Steele should face any consequences as a City of Gainesville employee.

But Hayes did say it was surprising to hear this about Steele, who he said is nothing like that when he’s on duty at GFR.

“He’s a pretty quiet guy.”

Though the police reports are public record, the full details from the administrative investigation won’t be released until the matter is closed.

Riggall said he anticipates a 30-day window until the investigation should be concluded, but that could change.

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Facing termination, High Springs City Manager Jim Drumm resigned last week.

With his departure finalized, and an election that will change at least one, and possibly two faces on the city commission, looming less than a week away, Jenny Parham continues to act as Interim City Manager and City Clerk.

At a last-minute afternoon meeting on Oct. 21, the city commission gave unanimous approval to accept a resignation agreement from Drumm.

Subsequently, the public hearing on the subject scheduled for later that evening was cancelled, as Drumm was no longer being terminated, but rather stepping down.

The terms of his resignation included a $66,433.80 check to be made out to the former city manager as soon as the agreement was signed into effect.

Drumm will also retain city health insurance, including family coverage, for the next six months, and the city gave him a neutral reference letter for future employers.

Under the agreement, Drumm fully releases and settles any and all claims related to his employment with the city.

Before casting his vote last Thursday, Commissioner Larry Travis, who was the only one to vote against Mayor Bill Coughlin’s motion to terminate the city manager several weeks ago, said he still thinks the mayor’s move was “ship-shod and fool-hardy,” and he didn’t think Drumm should go.

But because he submitted his resignation, Travis said he would vote to approve it.

The letter Drumm sent contained only two sentences:

“I, James D. Drumm, hereby resign as City Manager and City Clerk of the City of High Springs effective October 21, 2010 at the close of business. It has been an honor to have served the City of High Springs.”         

Parham was working as City Deputy Clerk under Drumm until the Sept. 27 meeting when Coughlin made the motion to fire him. The commission placed him on paid leave and appointed her to oversee his duties.

Commissioner John Hill said he’d like to see her take the position permanently, but he knows she doesn’t want to, and he respects that.

“She’s a very capable young lady,” he said.

“She’s very quiet in her manner, but she’s very efficient in what she does.”

Now Drumm is gone, and Parham is for the time being acting City Manager.  And because two commission seats are up for election on Nov. 2, the majority of current commissioners agree it’s pointless to talk about selecting a new city manager until after the results.

Five candidates are vying for the open two seats.  Coughlin is running for reelection for the seat he currently holds while Hill, who was appointed, is not seeking election.

The new commission will be seated Nov. 18. Until then, four of the five current commissioners indicated they don’t plan on bringing up the issue of who should replace Drumm.

Coughlin could not be reached for comment.

Commissioner Dean Davis agreed that Parham is doing a good job. It seems, he said, that everything is running smoothly.

Hill, as well as Commissioner Larry Travis, noted that the process to find a permanent replacement will be a lengthy one, and once it begins, it’s going to take time.  

And Travis stressed that the city commission should take time to figure out what it wants before it starts looking.

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Voters in the City of High Springs will have their plates full with decisions to make on Tuesday.

Between the city commission candidates, the city charter amendments and the numerous state and county candidates and issues, the ballot High Springs citizens will see on Nov. 2 has more than 30 items to vote on, four of which are strictly local.

Only city residents can vote on these items, which include the two commission seats up for election and two proposed amendments to the city charter.

Mayor Bill Coughlin, who is running for reelection, currently occupies one of the opening seats, and Commissioner John Hill, who was appointed to replace Diane Shupe when she resigned mid-term, occupies the other.

Hill is not running in this election.

Coughlin’s four opponents in the race for city office are Bob Barnas, Linda Clark Gestrin, Sue Weller and Byran Williams.

The candidates with the highest and second highest number of votes will take seat on the commission Nov. 18.

Recently, they shared their views with each other and a public audience during an hour-long question-and-answer forum at the High Springs New Century Womens Club.

The two charter amendments that will be on the ballot next week were both submitted, with unanimous approval from the current commission, as issues that should be left to the voters to decide.

The first is titled “Economic Development Ad Valorem Tax Exemption,” and if passed, it would grant the city commission authority to offer tax exemptions to new or expanding businesses for as long as they operate in High Springs.

If the amendment is voted into law, it will expire after 10 years, at which point the city commission could put it out to voters again to reinstate it.

“Proposed Amendment to the City of High Springs Charter-Number 1” is the not-so-informative title of the second amendment item, which consists of revising the process for filling vacancies on the city commission.

The proposal originated with a suggestion from Vice Mayor Eric May, who said voters should have the final say on how elected positions are filled.

If approved, it would require that if a commissioner were to step down or die, and there were more than six months remaining before the next regular election, a mandatory special election must be held to fill the vacant seat for the remainder of its term.

If there were fewer than six months remaining, the remaining commissioners could choose to appoint someone to fill the position until the next regular election, or the commission may choose to appoint someone to the position until the special election.

Currently, the city charter calls for the remaining commissioners to appoint a replacement until the next regular election and does not require a special election.

This was the process by which John Hill was appointed, which resulted from the commission’s initial failure to agree on a replacement for Shupe.

The rules set forth by this amendment would alleviate the commission’s responsibility to decide and potentially avoid similar problems in the future.

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Two High Springs firefighters have resigned in wake of an active, ongoing investigation in the department, a city official confirmed Wednesday.

According to Interim City Manager Jenny Parham, the two firefighters submitted their resignations, effective since Tuesday, but because of open investigations, she said she could not elaborate further. She would not name the two individuals, but she said everything relating to the issue will become public record as soon as the investigation is concluded.

One High Springs resident, who did not want to be named in order to protect their source of information, said the High Springs Police Department is currently conducting eight separate internal investigations on the fire department regarding complaints stemming from alleged acts of hazing among firefighters.

It’s a really sensitive issue, said City Commissioner Eric May, who declined to comment on the nature of the investigations or any details about the parties involved.

Any time there is wrongdoing, it’s important to hear both sides he said, adding that because of the ongoing investigation, he wanted to protect the rights of all individuals involved by not commenting at this time.

High Springs Fire Chief Verne Riggall also said he could not comment, beyond confirming that two firefighters had resigned. He said it is his understanding that they did so with the belief that it would be in the best interest of the department.

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On Monday evening, The Newberry City Commission evaluated plans for three different park projects that have been proposed for construction in the city.

The first two, Triangle Park and Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, will be funded by Wild Spaces Public Places (WSPP), a county-wide one-half cent sales tax program that was approved by voters in 2008.

City Manager Keith Ashby said that the city was given around $475,000 to work with and after purchasing the land for the community center for $15,000, it ended up with $460,000 for both projects. He said that since WSPP is a two-year program that will end in December, there will not be much more money coming in from it.

Upon request of the commission, Paul Stressing, of the architecture firm Stressing and Associates, focused on ways that the projects could be scaled back to work with the limited funds. He presented the commission with a shopping list of different features that could be added or deducted from the master plans of the two parks.

Stressing provided five different options for Triangle Park, ranging from the most expensive at $511,500, to the least expensive at $271,000. The options showed the price changes that would come about by including or excluding elements of the park such as an amphitheater, a 24-space parking lot, a playground, picnic pavilions, a pond, bathroom facilities, grills, benches, nature trails and a garden area.

Commissioner Lois Forte said that she envisioned the park as a place where family reunions and birthday parties would take place. She said that she was not willing to lose important parts of the park like the playground and the picnic pavilions.

“I have been trying and trying since ’86 to get this park,” she said.

Stressing presented two different options for the community center. The first was 4,000 square feet and would cost $400,000. It had a parking lot, a sidewalk and an outside pavilion in the front. The building included a wrap-around porch, a computer area, a kitchen and a lounge. The second option was 2,692 square feet and was priced at $296,200. It cut costs by eliminating the computer center, pavilion, parking lot and sidewalk.

Stressing said that his estimates for both projects were on the high end and did not take money that could be saved by community donations into consideration. Still, as Commissioner Farnsworth commented at the Aug. 23 commission meeting, it seems that the city has the money for one project and is trying to build two.

“You’re going to have to bite the bullet with this one and come up with your priorities,” Ashby told the commission.

A different kind of a park was the subject of discussion at a board of adjustment meeting held immediately after the commission meeting.  Commissioners heard plans for an RV park that would go in next to Nations Ballpark.  The commission granted a conditional zoning exception to Barry and Carlene Green, the owners of the 88-acre property where the park is planned to be built.

Mike Shuler was at the meeting to speak on the behalf of the Greens. He said that the park is being designed to accommodate visitors who will come to town for the ballpark and other local attractions such as the Eastern Newberry Sports Complex, Gatorback Cycle Park, Canterbury Equestrian Showplace and Gator football games.

Shuler said that the park would be built in three phases and would eventually have 245 units. He said they plan for it includes a clubhouse, a laundry room, a pool, showers and batting cages.

“A park like this is well-setup to accommodate the shortcoming needs that we’re getting ready to face if Nations Ballpark does go through,” Shuler said.

Some residents who live near the future sites of the parks came to the meetings to voice their concerns about problems that could arise.

Wendy DeVito said that she was worried about the safety of pedestrians who will be walking down the road to get to the ballpark. She strongly encouraged the commission to make sure there was a trolley system to take people to and from the park.

Jordan Marlowe, whose family farm is nearby where the parks will be built, said that he was concerned about the extra traffic that the ballpark will bring.

“I’m going to have a lot of people honking at me when I’m trying to get my hay down the road,” he said.

Marlowe also wanted to know if there would be buffers for the noise and lights that would come from the park. He said that while he did not want to stand in the way of progress, he was “worried about keeping the look and feel of Newberry, which is agriculture.” Add a comment

The Hawthorne City Commission will be reviewing Hawthorne’s budget again, after a concerned resident pointed out Tuesday evening what he believed were numerous discrepancies in the town’s guiding financial document.

Ray Daniel, a retired deputy state materials and resource engineer, attended the meeting to inform the commission of errors he found in the budget. Although it was passed as a balanced budget, Daniel’s own calculations show a deficit. A deficit he estimates to be nearly $400,000.

The problem, according to Daniel, arises from utility allocations made in the budget.  The adopted budget appears to reflect transfers from utility revenues into several other departments such as the City Commission, City Manager, Executive and other departments.  But those deductions seemingly never appear to come out of any of the utility departments’ budgets. 

According to the budget Daniel was referencing, 95 percent of the Customer Service department’s $42,000 budget is to be funded through “Utilities Allocations” while the remaining five percent would come from the general fund revenues.  But none of the city’s three utility departments reflect that $39,911 expenditure.  

“Utilities Allocations” were used to fund seven other departments as well and none of those transfers in are balanced by transfers out from any of the utilities.

To remedy the deficit Daniel believes the city will have to increase water/wastewater rates by 193.5 percent, almost triple what it is now, unless the city trims its budget drastically.

“Citizens of Hawthorne cannot afford such increases,” Daniel said.

He argues that if the city commission continues to use funds at the rate they are, with a reliance on the uncertain ‘balanced’ budget, the city will run out of money in the spring. Then to recover from the deficit, he believes the city will have no option but to quadruple the water/wastewater rate.

“I guarantee if you all do not take action you will have rough times ahead for the citizens of Hawthorne,” Daniel said to the commission at the meeting on Tuesday.

City manager Ed Smyth mentioned that he had the budget looked over by an accountant and was told that the budget was balanced. He did admit that the accountant only gave the budget a cursory glance.

Now Smyth is concerned that a he may have missed something or a mathematical error may have thrown off the balance. He said he was not sure of what exactly Daniel was arguing, and he cannot verify nor deny Daniel’s arguments. Smyth pointed out that he was not prepared for a discussion of the budget, and had no paperwork with him to discuss the issue.

“I have no idea what methods were used [by Daniel] or what version of the budget he used,” Smyth said.

Smyth is certain of one thing, he will make sure he and his accountant go over the budget in more detail.

Residents at the meeting were concerned that such serious problems may have been overlooked in the budget.

“I’m amazed, and it scares me,” Vivian Wagner, a concerned resident and regular attendee at commission meetings, said.

Commissioners were worried about the budget issues brought up in the meeting as well, and the commission decided to hold a budget workshop to further discuss these issues on Tuesday, Oct. 26 at 10 a.m.

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