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NEWBERRY – The last time a new Florida county was created was almost 100 years ago with the formation of Gilchrist County in 1925. Now there is a movement afoot among some people to create a county separate from Alachua County that would include the smaller municipalities in the western part of the county.

Springs County would include Newberry, Alachua, High Springs, Archer, and the western portions of Gainesville. Newberry City Commissioner Tim Marden, who is one of the leaders of the movement, says the idea began years ago, but has regained traction recently due to the pandemic. The issue of whether the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) has the right to set certain rules for municipalities, including mandating masks and business opening is key to the recent uptick in interest in the proposed new county.

Marden is proposing 34th Street (SR 121) as the dividing line, but the actual division would be drawn by the Florida Legislature, if approved. The idea of a separate Springs County has been around since at least 2015, but the complexity of doing so kept it an idea only among a small portion of the population.

Today Marden characterizes the action as a “political divorce” with much of its origins based on conservative ideology including less government influence in communities and individual lives, less restrictions on businesses, and more influence of churches and conservative organizations. The COVID crisis has played a part in the resurgence of the idea with opposition to the mask mandate and social distancing.

But the idea has grown beyond political lines. Much of the reason it has gained traction is that officials on both sides of the political spectrum in outlying communities feel they are not being listened to by the Alachua County BOCC, which centers much of their actions and tax funds on the more populous Gainesville. There seems to be an attitude among the commissioners that the outlying communities are responsible for their own growth and should be responsible for their own infrastructure. “But these residents of the smaller towns pay the same taxes and should have funding from that,” Marden said. All assets within the new county lines would belong to the new county, since they were already purchased by taxpayers according to Marden.

Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe said he has people contact him on a daily basis about Springs County and those individuals are republicans, democrats, those with no-party affiliation, and Gainesville residents. “This is no longer a partisan issue. This is no longer a small town versus urban issue…they’re clearly frustrated,” said Marlowe.

“I don't think creating a separate county is a good idea or even doable legally or financially, but it is clear that people are frustrated with the lack of representation on the BOCC.” Marlowe added that frustration stems from not only the belief that people are not being listened to, but also that decisions tend to be geared toward the Gainesville area.

“I would rather see more dialogue between the commission and the smaller rural communities,” Marlow said. “We have reached out to the commission multiple times but have not gotten much back and that is creating the problem.” He also realizes that a new county is just an idea, not a plan, and it would take a long time and a lot of money to bring it to fruition.

State Senator Keith Perry echoed that concern. “The problem in Alachua County is that since the majority of the population and voting block is based in the larger Gainesville area, the people voted onto the commission are mostly from Gainesville, and therefore have a vested interest in providing funding and infrastructure to their city, so I can understand the frustration from the outlying communities.” Perry said this creates friction between representatives from different towns and believes this is the impetus behind the idea of Springs County.

“There is currently not a lot of substance or research to the viability of creating a new county,” said Perry. He also said he had been approached by Marden about the idea. “The people behind the initiative need to provide more details for us to be able to research it or bring it up before the legislature, which has the only authority to approve such a move,” Perry said.  

While Marden has not reached out to the mayors or city managers of the towns in the proposed county, he says there is a general feeling of frustration with communications and distribution of county funding among the outlying towns. City officials from Newberry, High Springs and Alachua do not favor splitting from Alachua County, which would be complex and costly and unlikely to achieve constructive results. Most are in favor of establishing improved communications and interaction with the BOCC leading to addressing concerns of the outlying communities and to have more input in BOCC decisions.

Currently, details of how a new county would operate are scarce. The main proposal as described by Marden and the Springs County group revolves around taxes and control of local businesses and government. The group proposes to eliminate property taxes to be replaced with a local sales tax, a step they say that would give more revenue to individuals and small businesses and also keep property from being seized for nonpayment of taxes.

However, if the county were to be created by the legislature, it would be starting with no tax revenue and would have to leave the property taxes in place until enough reserve was created to switch to a sales tax base. But the timeline on that is unknown. While the group believes that eliminating property taxes would attract new businesses and lower costs for existing businesses, it might also drive residents to shop in Gainesville where sales taxes would be lower, or online, which would hurt small businesses that make up the majority of businesses in the smaller towns.

Marden explained the change wouldn’t mean that taxes will go down right away, “Those taxes will just kind of keep going and being basically the same for a little while,” Marden said. “I think there’s an opportunity to drive the expenses of government down significantly, right off the bat, and if we maintain the taxes for a year or two, the spread can be plowed into a lot of the infrastructure projects that have been otherwise neglected.”

The concept of removing property taxes would be to drive down the scope and scale of the county government, focusing on core services such as roads, public safety, utilities, and courts. Individual families, businesses, civic groups, and churches would be responsible for social programs and charities.

Property taxes are required by the state for public school funding and water management districts, as multi-county governing bodies, also levy taxes. The group is also supporting a gas tax to fix the roads, especially county roads that would become the responsibility of Springs County. Currently, outlying towns struggle to get the BOCC to improve or resurface roads. There is presently no research on whether a gas tax would produce enough revenue to replace property taxes, which are also used for road construction. Marden plans to ask the state for property tax records for the proposed area to see if the sales and gas tax would produce enough to replace it.

As far as incorporating the schools into a new county, they will largely stay the same per state requirements. Students attending magnet programs would hopefully benefit from a grandfather clause in any legislation creating Springs County. The group believes that teachers should focus on teaching and there should be more responsibility on parents for food and after-school care services.

While the School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) has a $423 million budget, teachers in Alachua County are among the lowest paid in the state. How much of a budget the schools in a newly created county would have remains unknown.

A new county would also require maintaining or creating new fire and police departments. While Marden says some first responders would leave to stay within the Alachua County retirement system, the departments would be smaller based on a primarily rural area.

Newberry currently has its own fire department but uses the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office (ASO) for police protection, meaning the city would have to create its own department, as would Archer. The City of Alachua has a police department but uses fire services from Alachua County. High Springs has both fire and police departments.

A new county would also have to create a county commission with members from each community. Marden says that currently, residents interested in attending BOCC meetings have to travel to Gainesville and he believes that creating a local commission would mean more citizen participation.

The idea of Springs County has gained traction with some people, but there is little quantifiable data available to support its creation or sustainability—information that is necessary before any proposed legislation can be considered.

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 HIGH SPRINGS – High Springs City Commission members met July 9 and worked through a brief agenda.

During the 35-minute long meeting, Commissioners acted on two matters. The Commission approved an agreement between First Christian Academy and the City to provide a school resource officer to the school. The Commission also appointed Commissioner Linda Jones to continue as the City’s representative to the North Florida Regional Planning Council.

An intended quasi-judicial public hearing on first reading of an ordinance that would have amended the Future Land Use Plan Map of the City was tabled since the Plan Board continued their hearing of the item until the July 28 Plan Board Meeting.

A resolution that would have established and amended Land Development Code Administrative fees was also tabled.

A review of the City’s financial statements through March of this year was cut short due when Finance Director Jennifer Stull commented that the March figures reflected City finances prior to COVID-19. Areas she thought could be problematic and worth watching in the future included revenue sharing and income from sales taxes. On the positive side, water and sewer funds increased because so many people remained at home during the previous month.

“We are watching our expenditures very carefully and only spending on items we absolutely must have until we see where we are financially,” said Stull.

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 NEWBERRY – A petition by the Oak View Village Homeowners Association (HOA) to close Southwest 251st Way at Southwest 15 Avenue failed to pass during the July 13 Commission meeting. The HOA request specified placement of an unlocked gate across Southwest 251st Way as a means to deter speeding drivers.

Although the roadway is owned and maintained by the HOA, Oak View Village is not a gated community. Since the road has been open to public traffic, the City has the right to determine whether the road should be closed or continue to be open to non-residential traffic.

The potential road closure has been discussed at several previous City meetings. Oak View Village HOA President Naim Erched, Vice-President Sherry Starbird and other residents encouraged Commissioners to approve the gate, which Erched said he would open and close himself each day.

Planning and Economic Development Director Bryan Thomas made the initial presentation to Commissioners and recommended against approval of the gate as a traffic deterrent. The Alachua County Sheriff’s Office conducted a traffic study while school was still in session and their report did not support the HOA’s claim that cars were speeding through that section of the subdivision.

During discussion Erched said that the temporary gate would be in place for one year to see how that worked. If it worked well, he said the HOA would consider an electronic gate for the future. Commissioner Monty Farnsworth moved to approve the gate and his motion was seconded by Commissioner Rick Coleman. Although they both specified there would be no time period conditions, the city attorney pointed out that the resolution was written with language that the issue would be reviewed in two years.

Further discussion as to whether the time period should be six months, a year or some other sunset date confused the issue further. In addition, comments made by Thomas, Commissioner Rocky McKinley and a call in from the City’s Planning Board member Linda Woodcock all suggested that other ways to curb speeding should be employed prior to installing a gate.

All three suggested that speed limit signs be installed within the subdivision by the HOA along with the implementation of other traffic calming devices. Woodcock said that a traffic signal at that intersection may also be required. Considerations involving emergency vehicle turnaround space and emergency access were also discussed.

Additional concerns that the City was not following its own Land Development Regulations (LDRs), which could put Newberry in an untenable situation down the road, also impacted deliberations.

Following the lengthy discussion and comments by all concerned parties, the earlier motion and second were voted on with Commissioners Marden, McKinley and Coleman voting no, despite the fact that Coleman had seconded the motion earlier.

Rather than Commissioners suggesting other options, Mayor Jordan Marlowe suggested the HOA meet again and let the City know how they plan to proceed with traffic calming.

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ALACHUA COUNTY – An interesting phenomenon is happening in Alachua County. People are arriving home to discover an amazing surprise near their front door. A number of people have reported finding a bronze eagle approximately 16-inches tall on a wooden stand with a plaque. Each one has the honored person’s name and reads, “Lifetime award for dedication and leadership in recreation for the communities in North Central Florida.”

The most unusual thing about the delivery of the eagles is that whoever provides them apparently wishes to remain anonymous. There is no note of congratulations or any other item to identify who or what organization is honoring the person listed on the plaque.

Some of the people receiving the mysterious eagles have used social media accounts to offer thanks and photos of the eagle and plaque. Since the honors seem to revolve around a person’s dedication to recreation in the north Florida communities, calls have been received by some of the heads of local recreation programs asking if the eagles were provided by those entities.

High Springs Parks and Recreation Department Director Damon Messina says he has received numerous telephone calls asking if he or the City of High Springs is responsible for the mysterious eagle presentations. “I wish,” said Messina. “We not only don’t have the money to place expensive eagles at people’s doors, we would choose to make a major presentation of them as part of a City Commission meeting if we were to present them.”

As far as the social media comments are concerned, it seems to have begun in May. One of the first recipient’s comments on Facebook occurred May 6 on Debbie and Rodger C. Mallard’s page. A photo of the eagle accompanied Mallard’s comments. “Left at our front door. Do not know what agency responsible, but thank you so much! It’s been our family’s pleasure serving the public and youth of our cities for many years.”

The post received 139 reactions and 43 comments by well-wishers. Comments ranged from a simple “Congratulations and well deserved” to more elaborate thoughts, “Thank you for your wonderful and dedicated service to the community. We honor you both.”

Mildred Rivera-Robinson posted the following on her Facebook page on May 15. “Surprised to find this at our front door today! Doug was honored with this ‘Lifetime award for dedication and leadership in recreation for the communities in North Central Florida.’ A well-deserved award. I’m so proud of you, Doug Robinson!” she said.

Her post received 95 reactions and 34 comments ranging from, “Congratulations. Much deserved!!!” to “Thank you for everything you do, Mr. Doug. No one more deserving of this.”

Posts continued into June when on June 27 Margie Turnbull Baumann posted the following on her Facebook page. “Tonight I came home to find this wonderful surprise in my parcel box. I am very honored to receive it but would like to know who and where it came from to say Thank You!”

A group of 87 reactions to Baumann’s post included 45 comments ranging from a simple, “Congratulations” to “Massive congratulations, Margie! This is so special.”

The following day, June 28, Mike Schentrup commented on his Facebook page, “I had a nice surprise left at my front door yesterday. Whoever dropped this off…THANK YOU! But please let me know who you are. I am very honored and not really sure I deserve this, but very grateful.”

Apparently, others thought he did deserve the eagle award as his post garnered 138 reactions and 55 comments. They ranged from, “WOW, that’s nice,” to “It’s beautiful. Such honor, Mike, for all the good you do. Congrats.”

Speculations abound as to whom or what organization may be honoring the worthy recipients. One commenter suggested the American Legion could be behind the eagles. It is unknown how many other eagles have been found at people’s doors who have not commented on social media. One thing is sure; a lot of people are grateful for the many contributions to the sports and recreation initiatives and people behind them in the north Florida communities.

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GAINESVILLE - During a special meeting/workshop July 15, the School Board of Alachua County voted to push back the first day of school for students to Aug. 24. That two-week delay will allow for more preparation and planning before school begins. The Board’s vote included additional training days for teachers and staff.

The other item the School Board approved during the meeting was a mandatory mask policy. With limited exceptions, mainly for medical issues, students and staff will be required to wear masks at schools and on school buses.

Under a state order issued last week, all Florida public schools must reopen in person five days a week in August. Florida districts must also submit reopening plans that meet state requirements to the Florida Department of Education for approval. Those plans are due July 31 and must include an estimate of the number of students who plan to attend school online.

Under the district’s reopening plan, local families will have three options for instruction this fall. They include the traditional, brick-and-mortar option requirement mandated by the state and two online options—a Digital Academy and the Alachua eSchool. Families are being asked to choose the option they prefer by 11:59 p.m. on July 19.

More information about the three options, the Choose Your School Option form and a Frequently Asked Questions document that answers many of the most commonly-asked questions about the proposed return to school is available on the district’s website at: https://www.sbac.edu/Page/29815

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ALACHUA COUNTY – The COVID-19 pandemic is making a resurgence worldwide, especially in the U.S. and in Florida. Much of it has become politicized with some believing it is serious and following guidelines for social distancing and mask wearing while others feel it is overblown or even a hoax and ignoring the guidelines.

Cities and states have handled it differently and have even been at odds over how and when to open back up. While there are disagreements and ambiguities, one thing is certain: COVD-19 is a highly infectious virus.

Scientists and researchers are constantly tracking infections and recoveries. But they have data only on confirmed cases, so they can’t count people who don’t get COVID-19 tests. Experts also don’t have information about the outcome of every infection. However, early estimates predict that the overall COVID-19 recovery rate is about 97 percent with the majority of deaths among the elderly or people with other health complications. However, medical experts are now seeing an increase in mortality among healthy younger people who are also emerging as the most infected age group.

The most common sign is a fever, which for most adults is 100.4 F or higher. Nearly nine in 10 people who test positive for the disease have a high temperature. It’s a sign that your body is trying to fight off an invader. About 70 percent of people who become ill have a dry cough. Other common signs include new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.

Other signs emulate symptoms of the flu. Up to 30 percent of people may initially be asymptomatic and show no signs. The incubation period before getting symptoms range between four days to two weeks—but these people can still spread it before showing symptoms. It may take two weeks or more for the body to get over the illness. That’s the average recovery time for mild cases, according to the World Health Organization. For those with health issues or critical cases, recovery can take up to six weeks. About 14 percent of people who have the new coronavirus need to stay in the hospital to get help breathing in an ICU facility. The hospital stay can last another two to six weeks.

Because of this timeline, all statistics do not happen simultaneously. Any surge in cases will take another two to four weeks before becoming serious enough to see an upsurge in hospitalizations and a similar or even longer time to increase the mortality rate.

During the current surge, which began in early June, several weeks after reopenings and relaxation of guidelines in various states such as Texas, Arizona, Florida and California, the numbers began to climb dramatically. While increased testing accounted for some of the numbers, many of the confirmed cases came from an upsurge in emergency room patients.

Organized testing is still having issues with people in hard hit cities waiting for hours for a test and labs running out of testing kits. In Florida, most testing is performed by private labs; the state has tested 9,888 cases while private labs and doctors have tested 268,779. Overall, Florida has conducted 2,639,574 tests of which 278,667 tested positive with a positivity rate of 10.4 percent. This is a dramatic increase from a month ago when only 6 percent tested positive and 8 percent two weeks ago. Some days in the past two weeks have seen as much as a 19 percent positivity rate.

Globally, there are 12,945,505 cases with a daily increase of 437,656 cases as of July 13. It has taken the lives of 571,444 people, while 7,001,675 have recovered. That presents a mortality rate of 4.5 percent. Currently the United States accounts for 25 percent of all cases and deaths with 3,366,515 cases and 137,191 deaths for a mortality rate of 4 percent. The daily infection rate increased by over 75,000 on July13.

The state of Florida reopened despite not meeting the CDC established guidelines for reopening. As of April 1, there were 7,700 cases in Florida with a daily increase of under 1,000 new cases. Florid Governor Ron DesSantis reluctantly put the state in quarantine, although a mask order was not issued statewide. However, several counties including Alachua County did mandate face masks, which kept the rate lower in Alachua than 17 other counties.

The Stay-at-Home order closed most businesses and as a result unemployment surged, as it had throughout the rest of the country. The state quarantine kept the number of new cases down, with small peaks and valleys, but below the high on April 1.

Based on this steady number, DeSantis canceled the quarantine order on May 1. Businesses were allowed to reopen at 50 percent capacity with social distancing enforced. Two weeks later he allowed bars, resorts and parks to reopen. However, many people ignored social distancing and mask requests. Two weeks later the rates began to rise again and continued to climb dramatically with two- to three-day small dips in numbers only to come back higher.

Since late June, Florida has seen an alarming increase in Coronavirus cases, with 10 times the daily infection rate of the initial spike in March. On July 13 the state set a record for number of daily new cases, higher than any previously reported by any state with a daily increase of 12,343 out of a total of 282,435 cases with 4,277 deaths, including an increase of 35 overnight. Based on the timeline, cases spiked while hospitalizations and deaths remained lower than new cases but are now beginning to catch up as the timeline progresses.

There have now been 18,498 hospitalizations during the pandemic in Florida. Current hospitalizations are filling 80 percent of the state's 5,023 ICU beds with less than 950 still available. Out of Florida's 67 counties, 25 have at least one hospital with no ICU beds available as of last week. Ten counties have less than 10 percent of their ICU beds available, and two counties have completely run out of adult ICU beds.

Testing has doubled over the last month, going from about 25,000 tests per day to almost 50,000, but the percentage of people testing positive has risen even more dramatically. A month ago, fewer than 5 percent of tests came up positive on a daily average. Over the past week, the daily average exceeded 11 percent per day.

Alachua County has fared better than 17 other counties partially due to stricter rules on masks and social distancing as well as a good medical base. As of July 13, Alachua County had 2,173 cases with 75 new cases in 24 hours. The county has administered 51,794 tests with a positivity rate much lower than state average at 4.2 percent although it has climbed from 3.2 percent two weeks ago.

Gainesville has a younger demographic than much of Florida with a median age of 29 among the cases. The mortality rate in Alachua County has remained low at 12 for more than five days. However, hospitalizations are rising and 80 percent of ICU beds are filled out of total of 320 beds. Unfortunately based on the timeline, the mortality rate is likely to climb in the next few weeks as hospitalized patients succumb.

While the economy needs to be revived with jobs recreated and schools reopening, allowing relaxation of the rules and people ignoring guidelines may force another shutdown to halt the ever-increasing surge as Florida is now the national hot spot.

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ALACHUA – Alachua based Ology Bioservices Inc., is receiving Department of Defense (DOD) biomanufacturing contacts valued at over $16 million. Through the Joint Science and Technology Office of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), DOD has awarded the company with three biomanufacturing contracts with a combined value of more than $16 million.

Ology Bioservices specializes in biologic drug substance manufacturing from early stage through commercial product. The company has 183,000 square feet of manufacturing, process development and QA/QC space in its state-of-the-art Advanced Development and Manufacturing Facility in Alachua. Ology Bioservices has more than 20 years of experience developing and manufacturing drugs and biologics for the U.S. government, with over $1.8 billion in government contracts awarded.

In the first program, valued at $8.5 million, Ology Bioservices will manufacture a conjugated vaccine candidate comprising the conserved protein from the bacterium Burkholderia pseudomallei and the adjuvant CPS-CRM-197. The vaccine candidate, developed at the University of Nevada, Reno, will be tested in a Phase 1 clinical trial and is being developed to prevent the disease melioidosis.

In the second program, valued at $4.6 million, Ology Bioservices will manufacture outer membrane vesicles from Burkholderia mallei as a potential vaccine against the bacterial disease glanders, an infectious disease primarily affecting horses. The vaccine candidate was developed at Tulane University. The material produced in this program will support a Phase 1 clinical trial.

In the third program, valued at $3.2 million, Ology Bioservices will manufacture a DNA vaccine against Venezuelan equine encephalitis to support a Phase 1 clinical trial. The vaccine was developed at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.

“We are pleased to be working with DTRA on these important programs,” said Peter H. Khoury, President and CEO at Ology Bioservices. “The diverse biomanufacturing technologies employed in these three programs clearly demonstrate the capabilities of our team at Ology Bioservices and the functionality of the Advanced Development and Manufacturing Facility.”

The company’s infrastructure provides unique services to its clients, including full regulatory support from preclinical through licensure, clinical trial operational support and bioanalytical testing, as well as the FDA’s Current Good Manufacturing Practice (CGMP) regulations manufacturing up to Biosafety Level 3 (BSL3).

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