Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Columbia County News

Columbia County Residents Blindsided By Triple Digit Insurance Rate Increases

Columbia County, FL (posted March 12, 2009)
Part II

by Stew Lilker

Recently, South Columbia County residents were blindsided by triple digit insurance rate increases. The cause -- the County Commission failed to keep residents within the five mile zone of protection of a fire department.

High Springs Fire House
The High Springs fire department is ready to protect South
Columbia County again. Now they sit idle waiting for
Columbia County to act. (Observer Photo)

Five hundred and seventy six families in the south end and particularly  the families in Commissioner Dewey Weaver’s District II, were hardest hit, your reporter included. Why? Columbia County cancelled its contract with the High Springs FD for no good reason.

Your insurance company wants to know how far you are from the fire department of first response. If you are more than five miles away, one is subject to much higher insurance rates. In the case of your reporter, his homeowners insurance went from an almost affordable $789 to $1117. All but $31 dollars of this 36% increase is represented by increased fire insurance due to the decrease in first response protection by Columbia County.

History -- Residents kept in the dark

Since 1980, the residents of South Columbia County were well served by the High Springs FD. High Springs’ rates were reasonable, their fire department was professional and response times were second to none.

The system worked well for all parties until Columbia County decided to form its own Fire Department in 2006. It is then that things began to fall apart between the County and High Springs.

Columbia County kept its residents in the dark regarding High Springs’ fire protection during this time. Folks in the south end were unaware that Columbia County was refusing to pay its bills to High Springs and that they were in jeopardy of losing the fire and EMT services on which they had come to rely. Five hundred and seventy six families were about to have their five mile radius of protection disappear. (Insurance companies and the fire rating agency, the ISO, consider five miles to be the maximum distance from a fire house for ideal coverage).

Columbia County’s residents were getting a good deal.

During the first week in October of 2006, County Attorney stand-in William Whitley met with officials of High Springs, including City Manager, Jim Drum.

Mr. Whitley reported to County Manager Dale Williams that after a fairly lengthy discussion, which concerned the lack of and poor communications between the County and High Springs, all of the information requested by the County’s purchasing director and Fire Chief was provided. Mr. Whitley told the County Manager that High Springs made a good case for their need of an increase of payment. “They want $17,500 per year,” he said.

Mr. Whitley told County Manager Williams that the City Manager gave him a letter terminating the 1980 interlocal agreement in 30 days. Mr. Whitley said High Springs would be happy to negotiate a new agreement or continue on a month-to-month basis for a while. Mr. Whitley told the County Manager, “I think they are determined to get their money in any further interlocal with us.”

Neither County Manager Dale Williams, nor District II Commissioner, Dewey Weaver, ever advised the residents in the South End of Columbia County they were about to lose the protection of the High Springs Fire Department.

By January of 2007, Columbia County was still refusing to pay its fire bills to High Springs for the years 2004-05 and 2005-06. Then, Columbia County refused to pay its month to month bills for December 2006 and January 2007.

At the January 11, 2007 High Springs board meeting, the High Springs Herald reported that, “Southern Columbia County is still in danger of losing High Springs’ fire and rescue services.”

The High Springs Herald article went on to say, “Upset with a lack of communication, timely payments or a draft contract for fire and rescue services, city commissioners are again considering asking the county to hurry up the process or risk ending negotiations for the renewal of the contract.”

On January 22, 2007, the Mayor of High Springs was forced to write to the then Chairman of the Columbia County Commission, Elizabeth Porter, saying among other things: If we do not receive the $15,000 in back payments, payment for the months of December 2006 and January 2007, and the proposed service agreement within the time period requested (30 days), I expect that this issue will be placed on the agenda for the first meeting in March for possible action by the High Springs City Commission. Your prompt action will avoid the possibility of fire-rescue services being terminated.

On January 24, 2007, County Manager Dale Williams complained to High Springs that he was miffed by his treatment by the High Springs Herald and the statements made by some High Springs officials claiming that Columbia County was “dawdling.”

Accused of dawdling – the County dawdled some more.

Then, after dawdling for almost two more months, it took the direct intervention of Board Chairperson Elizabeth Porter to keep the ball on the court. On March 15th, the Columbia County Board approved a tentative agreement, sight unseen, with the City of High Springs – almost. The agreement needed another “do-over” due to the bungling of the County and the final version of the Columbia County – High Springs Fire Interlocal was executed on April 12, 2007.

Finally, the residents of South Columbia County had professional, 24/7 Fire Fighter/EMT protection only minutes from their families. This was to be short lived.

Without one word to anyone and for no good reason, two months later on June 29, Columbia County canceled their agreement with High Springs effective October 1, 2007.

The news of the cancellation of the High Springs – Columbia County Fire Interlocal was revealed during a workshop, when, on August 2, 2007, Columbia County’s EMS Director, Rusty Noah, reported to the Board that “the county is no longer contracting with High Springs.”

During the ill attended workshop, both Fire Chief Atkinson and EMS director Noah presented an alternative plan, which would not have left the South End of the County in the cold. The County Commission ignored their proposal and instead said that “High Springs should be asked again about a month to month contract for fire suppression.”

It is unknown if Columbia County ever contacted High Springs before the interlocal expired. What is certain is that it did expire and no one knew.

The south end residents, mostly in Dewey Weaver’s District II, were about to get blindsided with skyrocketing insurance premiums, less coverage, higher special assessments, longer response times and the potential of life threatening situations.

The Columbia County fathers did what they always do best, unless they are making a deal for one of the Good Old Boys – they dragged their feet and looked the other way and in so doing, put the working families of Columbia County and everybody else in harm’s way.

In the aftermath of the fire in Bluebird Landing, your reporter spoke with County Manager, Dale Williams. When the Observer explained to the County Manager that the folks who originally discovered the fire called the High Springs Fire Department, the County Manager asked why they didn’t call 911, first. The Observer asked, “Why would they if they thought High Springs was their fire department? Did the county every notify anybody down there that it wasn’t?”

The County Manager was silent.



Part III coming soon:
Where are we now?


All but $31 dollars of this 36% increase is represented by increased fire insurance due to the decrease in first response protection by Columbia County.



Mr. Whitley told the County Manager that High Springs made a good case for their need of an increase of payment. “They want $17,500 per year,” he said.


County Manager Dale Williams complained that he was miffed by his treatment by the High Springs Herald claiming that Columbia County was “dawdling.”