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NEWBERRY ‒ Newberry city commissioners turned their attention to wastewater improvements at the Aug, 24 City Commission meeting. The commission approved a bid of $726,004, which includes the base bid of $637,727 and the addition of Alternate One at $88,277 to relocate Lift Station #1 and establish a wet station on higher ground.

Alternate One was described by Director of Utilities and Public Works Jamie JoneJones as including road resurfacing of Southwest 2nd Avenue from Southwest 254th Street to Southwest 258th Street.

Lift Station #1 is located at the intersection of Southwest 255th Street and Southwest 2nd Avenue. It was constructed in 1976 and is the only dry well-style lift station in the City’s wastewater system. “It receives approximately 50 percent of all wastewater generated in the system prior to pumping it to the wastewater treatment facility,” said Jones. Jones said that the intersection floods and allows stormwater into the wastewater system with the additional water overwhelming the pumps and potentially causing a sanitary sewer overflow.

The location is also plagued by limited right-of-way as the lift station is located within five feet of the travel lane of Southwest 2nd Avenue and within 20 feet of a house located at 25455 S.W. 2nd Avenue. Also, the pumps are located 20 feet below ground in a confined space. “Personnel safety requirements involved in maintenance activities are increased over those that occur in a wet well lift station,” he said.

The City worked with the Alachua County School Board to obtain a new site adjacent to Newberry High School. Currently, it is adjacent to the school’s football field. In January 2019 the School Board agreed to transfer ownership of the 50-ft. x 50-ft. lot to the City in exchange for facilitating a future wastewater/water connection point for construction of restrooms adjacent to the football stadium.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) issued construction permits in May 2019. Since the project included removing a portion of Southwest 2nd Avenue, an add alternate was developed to incorporate an additional 1,900 feet of roadwork as part of the City’s annual road resurfacing plan.

Jones explained that the four bids received for the project were evaluated by the engineer and City staff and rejected as the bid amounts were inconsistent. Bidders were notified and the scope of services was reworked and a second request for bids was issued.

Five bids were received the second time and Andrews Paving, Inc. submitted the lowest responsive and responsible bid. Funding will be from a combination of sources including development fees, the General Fund,and the Local Option Gas Tax.

Although no exact start date was mentioned during the meeting, Jones said that he anticipates starting as soon as possible. “Once the contract is executed Andrews will provide a proposed construction schedule for City approval.”

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GAINESVILLE Archer’s Bethlehem Methodist Episcopal Cemetery (BME) has received funding to improve cemetery grounds. The Bethlehem Methodist Episcopal Cemetery was established in 1875 as part of the Bethlehem Methodist Episcopal Church, built by freed slaves. According to the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation, there have been at least 80 known burials, the earliest of which possibly belonged to former slaves of the Cottonwood Plantation in Archer or the Haile Plantation in Gainesville.

The cemetery has been undergoing restoration since 1999, when the Bethlehem Methodist Episcopal Cemetery Restoration Organization (BMECRO) held its first cleanup project. Ever since, it has struggled to bring the total restoration to fruition. In 2019, Keep Alachua County Beautiful grant funds went toward further cleanup and restoration, particularly to manage the debris from Hurricane Irma.

The BME Cemetery does not properly honor those who lie there, namely the African American slaves who hold great historical importance in North Central Florida and the United States. Headstones are shattered, worn and weathered, erasing the significance of the inscriptions. From a closer look, headstones show birth dates as early as 1822, about 43 years before slavery was abolished. Dead tree removal is necessary in order to prevent further damage to the headstones and will pave a pathway to further restoration efforts such as the introduction of native plant species.

The Weyerhaeuser Giving Fund awarded Keep Alachua County Beautiful with $2,000 toward the restoration of the historic cemetery. Keep Alachua County Beautiful and this project have a focus on environmental stewardship and restoring significant historical areas in Alachua County. The $2,000 will be directed toward necessary maintenance, specifically dead tree removal in the cemetery.

The BME Cemetery was added to the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation 2019 Florida’s “11 to Save” List in May of 2019. The purpose of the list is to increase public awareness and appreciation of endangered historic sites in Florida. The cemetery’s position on the list emphasizes its important cultural and historical value in the state.

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NEWBERRY ‒ The City of Newberry is aiming to apply for Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding through Alachua County even though there may be a hitch with the City’s eligibility.

At the Aug. 24 city commission meeting Director of Finance and Administration Dallas Lee said that Alachua County’s share of funding from the CARES Act is $46,945,928. The Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) developed a distribution plan that allocates $21.1 million for Individual Assistance Grants (up to $2,500), $7.5 million for Small Business Relief Grants (up to $10,000), $7.5 million for Medium Business Relief Grants (up to $15,000) and $8.3 million for Government Assistance Grants.

Lee said that the BoCC distributions to local governments would be based on a variety of factors such as population, needs, existing programs and special circumstances. The City of Newberry has been allocated up to $103,400 in CARES funding according to Lee.

He explained that the City may only utilize these grant funds for expenses incurred as a result of or in response to the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency from the period of March 1 – Dec. 30, 2020, and reviewed the list of the types of expenses allowed to be reimbursed.

“To date,” said Lee, “the City has incurred approximately $20,000 in COVID-related expenses that would be eligible for CARES Act funding.” However, he also pointed out that funds can be shifted between categories with approval of the County Manager. Additional services or programs could be offered at the direction of the commission with funding provided through the agreement.

Examples of the types of additional services/program that could be approved might include cleaning of public parks or buildings or distribution of additional food assistance.

A possible sticking point with County CARES funding to the City of Newberry is that the agreement requires compliance with all Alachua County Emergency Orders currently issued or those issued in the future.

Lee reminded Commissioners that on May 21 the Commission authorized Mayor Jordan Marlowe to sign a resolution adopting the governor’s emergency orders within the City and declining to enforce the County’s emergency orders.

Lee requested direction on how the City should proceed. Lee explained that individuals and businesses which are in compliance with the County’s orders will be eligible for CARES assistance grants regardless of the City Commission’s situation.

Commissioners unanimously decided that the City should apply for their share of reimbursement funds up to $20,000, but that the application should include an asterisk that the City of Newberry will continue to abide by the governor’s emergency order and directives.

Marlowe pointed to the three other categories of funding that the BoCC has already determined would be reimbursed prior to the individual cities. He also said he believed the BoCC may be softening their stance on the requirement that every city must abide by their directives.

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NEWBERRY ‒ The Newberry City Commission is considering strengthening the City’s whistleblower procedures. A legislative public hearing was held on Aug. 24 on first reading of Ordinance 2020-12 that establishes an administrative procedure for employees and others who report illegality, mismanagement, malfeasance, waste or fraud on the part of City employees, agents or contractors.

Commissioners unanimously approved the measure on first reading. It is anticipated that it will be heard again on second and final reading during the first City Commission meeting in September.

Director of Finance and Administration Dallas Lee presented an overview of the proposed ordinance and explained that this ordinance codifies the rules that are already in place with the City on this issue.

In his explanation of the “Whistle-blower’s Act,” Lee said that it provides protections to people who disclose information regarding certain types of behaviors. “The Act provides for the establishment, by local ordinance, of an administrative procedure to permit disclosure of complaints and protect those persons making disclosure from retaliation. Further,” said Lee, “the Act also provides that when a local government adopts a local ordinance establishing such administrative procedures, that the local government will have an opportunity to address complaints locally instead of proceeding directly to court.”

State statute provides that even though the City has adopted policies about Confidential Reporting, state statute provides that “if these policies are adopted by ordinance then both the City and employee receive additional protections.”

Lee explained that it is in the City’s best interest to have the first opportunity to review and address allegations by its employees, agents or contractors and exhaust all administrative means necessary prior to moving forward with allegations. “We want to redress grievances and ensure that operations are always conducted with integrity and responsive to the needs of the citizens of Newberry,” said Lee.

Lee said that adoption of the ordinance allows employees an avenue to have concerns addressed without the expense and time of litigation falling to the employee. “The ordinance also empowers employees to disclose information of unlawful activity or malfeasance to the appropriate employees with assurances the employee will not be retaliated against, or provides recourse for any such retaliation,” said Lee.

This ordinance establishes a new section of code creating a procedure to handle confidential reporting complaints and legal protections for the complainant.

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HIGH SPRINGS ‒ Alachua County’s popular Poe Springs Park will soon be closing for construction and improvements. The closure will start Tuesday, Sept. 14, except for the boat ramp. It is anticipated that construction will stretch until January 2021. There will still be a $5 vehicle entry fee for the use of the boat ramp.

The 202-acre park on the Santa Fe River is near High Springs on County Road 340. Poe Springs is rated as second-magnitude in terms of the water that flows out of it — about 45 million gallons a day and is the largest spring in Alachua County.

A popular weekend recreation area, the property includes a playground, volleyball courts, sports fields and nature trails. It also includes pavilions and picnic shelters with bar-b-que grills. There is also a lodge building for event rentals, such as parties, family gatherings and small weddings. There is a full-service kitchen in the building which is included in the rental fee. Restrooms are on-site, and there is additional picnic table seating under the attached pavilion. There are loop trails throughout the park for hiking, and a boardwalk that traverses the cypress swamp that leads visitors to the springs. A boat launch and dock afford watercraft access to the river for boating kayaking, tubing and fishing.

The spring itself has a large area for swimming, relaxing or snorkeling in the year round 72-degree water. The crystal-clear spring water feeds directly into the Santa Fe River.

The park has a rich history spanning nearly 70 years of inviting people to enjoy nature and water-based recreation. In the mid-1940s Poe Springs was a commercial recreation site with bathhouses, refreshment stand, and picnic facility, but it fell into disrepair in later years and most of the buildings were taken down.

Poe was privately owned until 1985 when the initial 75 acres was purchased with a federal grant from the land and water conservation fund. Additional acreage was acquired by the Suwanee River Water management District (SRWMD) and additional grant funds in the 1980s. In 1987 the county obtained a permit to dredge the spring boil from a depth of 12 feet to 25 feet. Four years later, in 1991, Alachua County finished construction and opened the park to the public.

Alachua County shut the park again in December 2011 for a construction project that included a new retaining wall and steps in the spring-fed swimming area, new landscaping and new roofs and air-conditioning units on the buildings and pavilions. It reopened again on July 4, 2013 with no admission charge four days a week Thursday through Sunday.

Although Alachua County owned the park, it was a barebones operation and the county and High Springs made arrangements for the city to run the park.

It closed again in 2017 due to damage from Hurricane Irma and opened again in May 2018 after repairs were made but on a shorter weekend only schedule of Friday to Sunday, but was still free to visit.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic and the park closed again under state quarantine in March 2020 only to open again three months later with a $5 per car fee to help maintain the park and pay employees.

But more repairs and upgrades are still needed. The boardwalk, which winds through a wetland to the spring, was severely damaged by Hurricane Irma in September 2017. It was repaired enough to make it usable, but it will now be widened in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, heightened and lengthened to the spring.

During the closure, the work will include widening and lengthening the boardwalk to the spring, replacing the canoe/kayak launch and replacing the restrooms. Contractors will also be required to install silt fencing to protect water quality and the process will be monitored by the county.

An infusion of cash from the federal government and a local tax will pay for upgrades at the park. Funding is provided jointly through Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Alachua County’s Wild Spaces Public Places tax. FEMA will kick in $280,665 while the county’s share is $284,152.

The expected reopening date is mid-January 2021.

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ALACHUA ‒ Affordable housing for seniors is on the forefront of housing options in the city of Alachua. Alachua County Housing Authority (ACHA) Executive Director Ken Armstrong reported to the City Commission on planned construction of a 40-unit affordable senior community in Alachua’s Merrillwood neighborhood.

Plans for one- and two-bedroom apartment homes include accommodations for people with disabilities and space for support services. A planned community center will include gym, shuffleboard, art classes and other recreation activities in a landscaped green space. Plans are also in the works for shuttle services to Gainesville and the Veterans Hospital.

Residential units in Merrillwood are aging and 17 deteriorating units will be taken down to make way for the senior housing footprint. Residents of the demolished homes will be relocated to other units within Merrillwood or to other neighborhoods with the help of the ACHA through the use of tenant vouchers, which can be used at any Housing Authority neighborhood in the county. The vouchers will cover moving expenses, rent and utility help. Future phases include plans to replace the roughly 40 remaining aging units at Merrillwood with new housing units.

Infrastructure improvements in both the Merrillwood and Hitchcock neighborhood areas have been a priority for the City with extensive repairs to streets and stormwater drainage systems. The City focused on neighborhood revitalization by obtaining Community Development Block Grants, supplemented by City funds, to upgrade streets, curbing and stormwater systems as well as City parks and playgrounds. The two city parks in the area were in need of extensive grounds repairs and refurbishment including lighting, pavilion restoration, erosion control, fencing, picnic tables, complete restoration of basketball courts and new playground equipment.

In other business, the City of Alachua Youth Advisory Council participated in the Florida League of Cities 2020 Youth Council Community Service Contest and was one of five of the state's youth councils to win. The Youth Advisory Council offers students the information and tools to actively participate in addressing issues impacting community youth and to ensure the leaders of tomorrow have input in the local government process today. The organization organizes community meetings with other youth to discuss issues and suggestions for improvement, and they also assist in planning and implementing events to benefit youth.

YAC members opted to help inform other students at their schools about the political and election process. The Florida League of Cities 2020 Youth Council Community Service Contest judging panel was impressed that this Council chose election education as their project, and remarked they never had a youth council choose this subject before. After listening to short discussions on their efforts by council members, Mayor Gib Coerper awarded each member a certificate and the trophy to honor their efforts to inform future voters.

In other business, the Commission gave final approval to revised water rates for the upcoming fiscal year to generate revenue sufficient to meet operating expenses. The proposed 3 percent rate increase provides for changes to the customer charge, availability charge and consumption charge. For the most part, residential rates changed by less than 25 cents, with three different consumption charge rates changing by 6 to 12 cents. Wastewater rates changed by 33 cents to a proposed rate of $11.30 per customer. Irrigation customer water rates went from $8.37 to $8.62 with a consumption increase of 12 cents per 1,000 gallons.

The Commission also voted on two open positions on the City’s Planning & Zoning Board. Board members Sandy Burgess and Anthony Wright were reappointed to serve three-year terms.

The final order of business was the Annual Performance review of City Manager Adam Boukari by the full Commission. All five commissioners commended Boukari's performance and management skills and each gave him an “excellent” rating above 9 on a scale of 1-10.

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HIGH SPRINGS ‒ The High Springs City Commission has approved on first reading rezoning requests for some 53 acres of property. Two related ordinances to amend the City’s official zoning map were heard in quasi-judicial public hearings during the Aug. 13 City Commission meeting.

The first to be considered was Ordinance 2020-07/Z 20-01 submitted by Jarrod Ryan Hingson and Crystal Courtney Hingson. Their application requested the City amend the Land Development Code’s Official Zoning Map from “IND” Industrial to R-1 Residential on 20.06 acres. According to the City, water is available on the property, but sewer access is not. This application received unanimous approval by the Commission.

The second amendment under consideration was Ordinance 2020-09/Z 20-03 submitted by Woodland III Ltd. The application requested the City amend the Land Development Code’s Official Zoning Map from “IND” Industrial to C-3 Commercial of 32.98 acres of land bordering the road known as Railroad Avenue in High Springs.

According to Fire Chief Bruce Gillingham, this property was heard and approved in 2006. The item was submitted to the Department of Community Affairs but was tabled and swept up with Industrial-Commercial (Mixed Use) C3 zoning. This zoning request is consistent with the property to the north of it.

Dennis Lee appeared on behalf of Woodland III Ltd. Both he and Gillingham said there was sewer access on Railroad Avenue.

One commissioner expressed concern with the rezoning, with Commissioner Nancy Lavin commenting that the area is surrounded by residential properties. In response, Lavin was reassured that the change was compatible with the surrounding area. Commissioner Scott Jamison said the Commission would have to approve any development on that property.

The proposed amendment received unanimous approval on first reading.

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