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NEWBERRY ‒ Robert Neal Duncan, Jr., 44, was arrested on March 17 following the death of a pedestrian Tuesday, March 15, on Millhopper Road in Gainesville.

The arrest report indicated that Duncan was driving a maroon 2014 Chevrolet Silverado westbound on County Road 232, just east of the Interstate 75 overpass when he struck a pedestrian, a 27-year-old Palatka man, who was in the westbound bicycle lane. The pedestrian was thrown into the ditch on the westbound shoulder. The Silverado also came to rest in the ditch on the westbound shoulder.

A witness at the scene said he was driving westbound on Millhopper Road when he saw the truck stuck in the ditch and observed that the side curtain airbags were deployed. He stopped to help and called 911 to report the incident. Seeing tire marks in the shoulder, the witness walked along the shoulder, found the man who had been hit, and again called 911.

A second witness said he was driving eastbound and, unaware that the truck was involved in a crash, pulled the truck out of the ditch with a strap.

Post Miranda, Duncan reportedly said he had seen something “furry” in the road and had swerved to the left to avoid it but couldn’t say for sure whether he had remained within the travel lane. He said he then became stuck in the ditch and was pulled out by a passing motorist. Duncan reportedly slurred his words and was lethargic during the interview.

Duncan and several Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) Troopers relocated to the Chevron at Hunters Crossing for field sobriety exercises. Duncan reportedly had trouble following instructions and had poor balance during the exercises.

An FHP Trooper took Duncan to the North Florida Regional Medical Center Emergency Room near the Chevron and placed him under arrest. After he was discharged, he was booked into the jail at 3 a.m.

Duncan, a Newberry resident, has been charged with DUI manslaughter and a third DUI conviction within 10 years. He is currently on probation for possession of a controlled substance without a prescription and is being held on a $1.1million bond, with a requirement for a Transdermal Alcohol Detector monitor upon release.

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HIGH SPRINGS ‒ High Springs Police Chief Antoine Sheppard presented a life saving award to Sergeant Dustyn Shenk and Officer Cody Clark during the March 10 High Springs City Commission meeting.

The recognition was in response to their actions during a medical emergency on February 4. Timothy Owens’ wife called 911 when she realized her husband was having a medical emergency. She was able to get her husband in a prone position on the floor and began chest compressions.

The two officers arrived shortly thereafter. Owens was unresponsive, not breathing and had a discolored face. Realizing Owens was in full cardiac arrest, Shenk and Clark utilized their automated external defibrillator (AED) and delivered two shocks to him while also performing chest compressions. Officer Julie Nodarse was also on the scene and reassured his wife and made contact with the hospital.

Members of the High Springs Fire Department arrived and rendered other life-saving measures. Owens was transported to a nearby hospital, where he recovered.

Both he and his wife were at the City Commission ceremony. Mrs. Owens addressed Commissioners and recounted the happenings of that day and thanked the officers and Nodarse for their help.

Both Shenk and Clark received commendations and plaques in recognition of their actions on Feb. 4.

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NEWBERRY – New construction in Newberry will be more expensive says the City’s Building Official, Scott Thomason, who maintains that building inspection fees are not keeping up with costs associated with inspections. In a presentation he made to the City Commission on March 14, Thomason said the City’s current permit fees were set in 2003 and haven’t been raised since. Although fees have been stationary for nine years, expenses have risen year after year.

“Building Departments in Florida operate on the premise that development should pay for itself and fees collected for permitting should be sufficient to fund the operations of the department. Since [2003] the cost of providing plan review, permitting and inspections has grown steadily,” said Thomason.

In addition, Thomason said the state banned the collection of contractor registration fees several years ago resulting in an average budget loss of over $20,000 annually. Although fees established 18 years ago were sufficient at that time, they are no longer sustainable.

Thomason said the City of Newberry conducted an internal review of fees charged to see if they were in balance with associated costs. What they discovered is that some of the fees charged for certain types of permits were adequate based on the costs associated those permits, while others were not.

Based on several factors such as the Building Official’s time to review or inspect a site, vehicle and gas costs, etc. Thomason determined that the cost per inspection is $85.76. In a Cost vs. Fees Charged Comparison of five typical inspection types: single-family residence, re-roof, HVAC, mobile home and pool, only single-family residence and mobile home inspections paid for themselves. Based on cost to the City, re-roof inspections cost the City $101, while HVAC and pool inspections cost the City $35 and $252 respectively, to perform.

The City also conducted a comparison of Newberry permit fees relative to other local jurisdictions. He used fees charged by Alachua County, the Cities of Alachua, Gainesville, High Springs and Williston and Gilchrist County for comparison. “Relative to our peers, Newberry permit fees in general are on the low end of the spectrum of permit fees being charged,” Thomason said.

Another issue identified by Thomason is that building permit fees were set by ordinance to be calculated based on the Southern Building Code Congress International tables, which no longer exist. “The industry standard is to base permit fees on the International Code Congress (ICC), which the Florida Building Code is based on. Therefore, the City needs to update its code to base permit fees on the ICC standard,” he said. The effect of this change is a modest increase in permit fees on residential permits (on average, around $200 per unit), and a significant decrease in fees charged for large commercial development.

Thomason also recommended developers put down a deposit for plans review. He said sometimes they spend time on plans reviews and never hear anything more about a project. However, staff members have spent time on their project, which doesn’t get reimbursed to the City.

The last issue reviewed had to do with Building Department reserves. “The Building Department is supposed to pay for itself and stand alone,” said Thomason. “It is not supposed to take funds from the General Fund to operate.”

Reserves are used to supplement revenues for operational expenses during down market cycles, to avoid having to draw funds from the City’s General Fund or lay-off staff while permit volume is temporarily low. The state recommends a one-year reserve, based on the average cost to operate the department over the previous four years.

Thomason explained that currently, Building Department reserves (after programmed expenses) are approximately $10,000—or 0.03 years’ worth of the current operating budget. He estimated that if the proposed changes to the Building Permit fees are adopted by the Commission, the proposed departmental reserve goal will be met within “five - seven years, at the current rate of community development”.

In other City business, Ordinance 2022-19/LDR 22-02 to allow electronic message signage at City Hall was approved in a 4-1 vote on second and final reading with Commissioner Tim Marden casting the dissenting vote.

Amendments to the Personnel Policies were discussed and Commissioners voted to approve Resolution 2022-09 to update the policies as reviewed by Assistant City Manager Dallas Lee. Designation of the Juneteenth holiday was tabled for further discussion regarding whether the date would be a paid or unpaid holiday.

Major changes include updates to the drug testing policy, compensatory time, clarification of leave policies, declared City closure policy and disciplinary actions.

Mayor Jordan Marlowe invited interested citizens to attend an informal Meet and Greet with election candidates on Monday, March 21, from 5:30 – 6:30 p.m. at The Blend, 305 S.W. 250th Street, Newberry.

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ALACHUA ‒ The Babe Ruth Jamboree has returned to Alachua. The Babe Ruth League was established in 1951 to provide coaching and training for young athletes from 4 to 16 years of age in recreational baseball. The goal was to help them learn not only baseball but to build their understanding of working as a team and competing with other teams with the core values of honor, integrity, unity and sportsmanship.

Now over 70 years later, there are leagues throughout the United States with over one million players, divided by age groups and style into four groups. Cal Ripken Baseball is for ages 4-12, Babe Ruth Baseball covers ages 13-16 with other leagues for Babe Ruth Softball, and Buddy Ball. Each group has a regular season, post-season games with different leagues and then at the end of the season the best players are picked for All Star team competitions.

In Alachua, the Santa Fe Babe Ruth Baseball League was founded in 1986. The league ran roughly 30 teams in the spring season and slightly less in the fall. Typically, a team practices or plays games three days a week. In the spring, the league starts the season with a “Jamboree” ceremony.

But like many other traditions, the Pandemic negatively affected the annual event. In 2020 there were no games. In 2021, the opening Jamboree was cancelled due to social distancing restrictions.   Games were played since it was an outdoor setting where distance rules could be observed. Today, the Jamboree has returned in full swing with an opening event that allows parents and players to gather and kick off the season and a full schedule of spring games.

“Before 2020, we had about 300 players and 30 teams, but due to the canceled seasons, we are now at 16 teams and about 187 players for the 2022 season, but we expect it to grow back to previous figures in a year or two,” said League President Chris Swilley. “Beyond players, we have to rebuild our all-volunteer staff and the sponsors that host and fund each team.”

Swilley said that all home games are played on fields in Alachua or High Springs, but they also compete with other leagues throughout North Florida. “They are doing the same rebuilding as us, but Babe Ruth Baseball has returned,” said Swilley. “Volunteers are the lifeblood of our organization and the Board is incredibly grateful for all of the parents, coaches, scorekeepers, concession volunteers and field crews that put in countless hours making this league possible. ‘

The efforts of all those volunteers and sponsors were on full display March 12 when players, staff, vendors and families gathered at the Hal Brady Recreation Complex for the opening Jamboree ceremony. The weather had been bad, with heavy rains for two days, but the rain stopped and skies cleared during the indoor ceremony leaving clear skies for the day's full slate of baseball games.

City officials, staff and police chiefs from both Alachua and High Springs were on hand to show their support for the league and the opportunities it brings the youth of the two cities.

Former Alachua City Commissioner Ben Boukari, Jr., served as MC, introducing the dignitaries and each team. Local celebrity and recording artist Cliff Dorsey sang the National Anthem as Boy Scout Troop 69 from High Springs posted the colors. Swilley presented the “Hal Brady” awards for 2020 to 2022 to honorees who had shown the most dedication and support for the league, even during the troubled two years of the Pandemic.

The league mascot, “Homer,” dressed as a baseball, enthusiastically walked the sidelines working up the assembled families and players to show their excitement. Boukari, along with dignitaries, league leaders and Homer, formed a line, and each team walked down the line as each person slapped hands to the players congratulating them as they were introduced and filed past.

The final act of the Jamboree opening ceremony was the first pitch thrown to one of the players by Alachua Parks and Recreation Director Elliot Harris to signify the opening games of the season.

Outside the skies cleared as players and families enjoyed barbecue provided by Buttman BBQ of Lake City and sweets and deserts from Mamas Sweet Blessings they headed to the playing fields to bring back the season for the Santa Fe Babe Ruth League. It was time to “Play Ball!”

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HIGH SPRINGS ‒ The 25,000-square-foot Fellowship Church on U.S. Highway 441 in High Springs is slated to become medical professional offices following approval by Commissioners of an ordinance to rezone the property from R1 Residential to C3 Commercial.

An ordinance to allow the 20-acre site, located at 16916 U.S. Highway 441, to be rezoned received second and final approval by Commission at the March 10 meeting.

In February 2021, adjacent tax parcel 03040-000-000 was rezoned from R1 to C3. The change in the adjacent parcel was found to be consistent with the area.

City Manager Ashley Stathatos pointed out that the facility is already serviced by City water and sewer and has two access points along U.S. Highway 441. She also said that the proposed zoning change would be consistent with the existing land use patterns in the area. The parcel fronts a major highway, which has commercial uses up and down both the north and south sides. The current use of the property as a church and the potential future use indicated by the applicant, medical professional offices, are both consistent with the Land Development Code. Additionally, the other uses available under C3 are also compatible with the area. Approval of Ordinance 2022-02 was unanimous.

Assistant City Manager Bruce Gillingham requested the Commission adopt an updated employee compensation pay scale. He reminded Commissioners that in 2017 the City contracted with Evergreen Solutions to perform a compensation study with comparable cities to evaluate the salaries at that time. The final compensation report, which included proposed pay grades, was adopted by the Commission on September 25, 2017.

“Since its adoption,” Gillingham said, “the pay grades have not been revised or updated.” In order to keep salaries updated to be equitable and competitive, staff increased the adopted pay grades by the CPI of each year and then compared with the salaries of the cities used in the original study. The findings were that the majority were comparable with the other cities. On an overall average, High Springs’ pay scale averaged seven percent lower. When considering an employee's length of service, salary adjustments are recommended.

He pointed out that the City is losing quality employees to other employers and, although he was not requesting immediate pay increases, their approval of the proposed increases would mean that he could work on how the increases could be budgeted either during this fiscal year, or for the next fiscal year’s budget.

Commissioners expressed their desire to help the City maintain quality employees and recognized them as an important asset to the running of the City. Commissioners unanimously approved Gillingham’s request in roll call vote.

Commissioners also approved the appointment of Danny Finn to fill out the remainder of recently-resigned Candace Webb’s term on the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board. Finn submitted his application to be on that Board at the time Webb resigned. Parks and Recreation Director Damon Messina pointed out that there were no alternates that could fill her position and that meetings sometimes had to be cancelled due to lack of a quorum.

Stathatos asked for comments and/or direction on two issues. The first was proposed amendments to the Land Development Code governing accessory uses and structures.

She explained that an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) is a second living unit that has a separate kitchen, bathroom and sleeping area. These units can be attached to or detached from the primary dwelling, but cannot be bought or sold separately from the primary dwelling. ADU’s are sometimes referred to as “mother-in-law suites, granny flats or backyard cottages.”

The recommended change for ADUs would allow parcels that are one acre or less to have up to two and parcels greater than one acre to have up to three ADUs. Stathatos summarized the proposed changes and requested feedback from Commissioners, who unanimously agreed to her suggested modifications to the Land Development Code. This item will next go before the Planning and Zoning Board for their recommendation before it is presented to the Commissioners again as an ordinance.

The second item Stathatos asked for input on had to do with impact fees for new construction. She explained that this would be a onetime fee on new development to help pay for the impact to the High Springs community. “People ask how the City is going to pay for the growth that is happening and this is one way newcomers can invest in the community and the impact they are having to the city’s growth,” she said.

Commissioners were presented with a table showing each of the land use categories and the proposed impacts to transportation, parks and the general government impacts. These fees would be part of the cost of obtaining building permits and would help defray the cost their project is anticipated to impact the community. She said also that the proposed fees are competitive with other cities that have impact fees.

Based on the Commissioners’ responses the city manager said she would move forward to get these fees implemented.

Under City Manager Comments Stathatos introduced the City’s new Public Works Director, Thomas Henry. He talked a little bit about his history and has had a 31-year career with Lake City. He has already begun working on obtaining grants for the City in his two weeks in High Springs and boasts that in addition to his certifications and experience for the position, he is also a barbecue pit master. Stathatos said she will put his abilities to the test the next time the Florida League of Cities meets in High Springs.

A City Commission Workshop to discuss the Comprehensive Plan and American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Funds will be held at 6:30 p.m. on March 22 at the Civic Center, 19107 NW 240 St.

A Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) meeting is scheduled for City Hall at 5 p.m. on March 24, just prior to the next City Commission meeting at 6:30 p.m. the same night. The public is encouraged to check out the new CRA website has recently been launched.

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ALACHUA ‒ It’s no secret that people love their pets, so much so that they think of them as family members. When a pet is sick or in distress, it can affect the entire family. Imagine the pain when a beloved pet is missing.

That is exactly what happened to a family traveling through Florida during the holidays. In mid-December, Cassandra Bennett and her two children took a long-awaited vacation cruise to the Bahamas. Traveling to Florida from their home in Virginia, they also brought their beloved Chow dog, Kahlua with them. Bennett's former husband, who lives in Alachua County, offered to watch the dog rather than hire a pet sitter in Virginia. The Bennetts believed Kahlua would be well taken care of and better off in a comfortable home setting rather than with a stranger in Virginia.

But Kahlua had other ideas. Missing her family, and also being in heat, she escaped twice while staying with Bennett’s former husband. He found her the first time, but the second time she disappeared just days before the family returned.

The Bennetts were devastated when they learned the day after Christmas that Kahlua was missing. With few options, they had to return to Virginia without her.

“What should have been a happy ending to our special trip turned into a very sad experience, walking into our house seemed empty without Kahlua,” Cassandra Bennett said. “My kids were especially heartbroken. Although we were unable to stay in Florida to look for her, I knew we couldn’t give up on her.” Bennett took to social media and community posts in the Alachua area to put up Kahlua's photo and see if anyone had seen her.

The response from the Alachua and High Springs communities was overwhelming. Volunteers put up posters and continued posting to Facebook pet finder and community pages. A number of people had seen Kahlua near Sonny's Barbecue in Alachua but she was skittish and no one was able to catch her. Still, at least the family know she was alive and had hope she could be caught. But the longer she was missing, that hope began to fade.

One of the people who kept up the search was Denise Henault. A dog lover herself, who had owned Chows, she knew something about the breed’s personality and let people know what to look for.

Since Kahlua was seen multiple times in the large expanse of woods behind Sonny's, employees began to leave food out to try and set a pattern for her and then hopefully trap her.

“One of the problems we ran into was that every time someone would post they had seen her, a dozen people would show up to try and capture her, which unfortunately had the opposite effect and scared her off,” Henault said.

By the beginning of March, Kahlua had been missing for10 weeks, but people continued looking for her and trying to find ways to capture her.

Two of the people who continued the effort were Karen Martin-Brown and her husband, David Brown. David put out a large cage and trail cameras. “We had the restaurant put out food on a set schedule to try and establish a routine,” said David.

While the trail cams confirmed she was still in the area and alive, the recordings were on a card. “While we knew she was out there, all evidence was after the fact and didn't help to capture her,” said David. “The best hope was to establish a routine with the food and lead it into the cage, hoping she could be caught.”

The Browns were contacted by Mike Merril, a trapper with Florida Urgent Rescue, who offered his expertise and better equipment. He set a large cage with a trapdoor release and provided cameras that could be connected by WIFI to the Brown's cell phones to provide real-time sightings.

They came very close to catching her one time when she stuck her head in the cage but got spooked and bolted. Two days later, on March 10, they finally had success when Kahlua entered the cage and tripped the release.

The Browns immediately called Henault and she climbed down into the ravine behind Sonny's. “When I got there, I realized we couldn't lift the cage up the incline without help due to the weight with the dog, said Henault. Several men who had been involved in the search came to help, with four of them each taking a corner of the cage and hauling it up to the parking lot.

“I called Cassandra in Virginia to let her know we had captured Kahlua,” Henault said. “She and her kids were ecstatic and very grateful to everyone in the community for their efforts.” After all that time living in the wild, Kahlua was filthy and had ticks. Henault took the dog to her house for a bath and a meal.

Cassandra Bennett headed down early the next morning for the 11-hour drive, arriving at Henault's home around 5 p.m. As soon as the dog saw her, it leaped up, licking her face as her tail wagged furiously.

Kahlua may and been scared of strangers but she was happy to see her family again. Bennett said she and her children are grateful to the Alachua community and everyone who spent time and effort to reunite the family with Kahlua. “We had begun to give up hope we would ever see her again, but so many people here made this possible,” Bennett said before heading back to Virginia to bring Kahlua home.

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ALACHUA COUNTY ‒ Members of the Academy of Entrepreneurship at Buchholz High School competed March 3-6 at the 62nd Annual Florida DECA Career Development Conference with impressive results. Of the 136 students who won recognition and are now eligible to compete at the International DECA conference in April, two are from Newberry and one is from High Springs.

At the State conference, approximately 2,800 students from across Florida gathered in Orlando to compete in 50 different events during the four-day conference, with a range of 30-50 students in each event.

One competitive event winner was Newberry resident Lydia McGraw along with her teammates Ezra Yazdanpour and Trevor Davy, Gainesville, won Second Place for their Financial Literacy Project.

The second competitive event winner from Newberry was Emily Lathem, who competed with team member Max Schentrup, Gainesville, and received Third Place honors for their Integrated Marketing Campaign Service project.

A third competitive event winner was Spencer Dorosheff from High Springs, who won Second Place for Sales Project, along with teammates Jenna Phillips and Hannah Mack, Gainesville.

The Buchholz DECA chapter received the Diamond Chapter Award, which is the highest recognition based on multiple activities in four areas: community oriented, academically prepared, experienced leaders and professionally responsible. Buchholz school-based enterprise, the Spirit Spot was also recognized as a Gold level chapter.

DECA, formally known as Distributive Education Clubs of America, is a non-profit career and technical student organization with more than 225,000 members. The organization prepares emerging leaders and entrepreneurs in marketing, finance, hospitality and management in high schools and colleges around the globe.

Other competitive event winners were: First Place – Business Solutions - Ella Avera, Bridget Walsh, Madeline Quire, Second Place – Community Giving Project - Sophia Butler, Ellie Jobes, Dillon Menefee, Third Place – Restaurant and Food Services Management - Nick Holland, Place – Business Services Marketing - Macey Warring, Third Place – Food Services Marketing - Joel Chung, Third Place – Buying and Merchandising Team - Aiden Brake, Jazmine Vogler, 4th Place – Professional Selling - Logan Chatfield, Fifth Place – Community Awareness Project - Briley Cauthen, Elle Lentz, Gracie Wilson, Fifth Place – Integrated Marketing Campaign - Gracie Skinner, Brigitte Trabbic, Fifth Place – Marketing Management Team - Cade Cricchio, Layla Thomas, Sixth Place – Career Development Project - Heather Adair, Arden Leedy, Rachel Meyers, Sixth Place – Start Up Business Plan - Morgan Smith, Sixth Place – Financial Services Team - Nick Ladwig, Dylan Thomas, Sixth Place – Travel and Tourism Team - Riley Leiback, Luna Trujillo Suarez, Seventh Place – Integrated Marketing Campaign - Erin Larkin, Seventh Place – Retail Merchandising - Kylie Clinton, Seventh Place – Marketing Management Team - Jacob Kaercher, Al Munoz Garcia and Seventh Place - Principles of Business Management - Noah Perez.

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