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Cnty 5 & Cnty Management Ratchet in $2,000,000 Slush Fund: Sunshine Law, What's That?

The 5 appropriated $400,000 for a road in the middle of nowhere that ends at the forest.

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Buried in last Thursday's County 5 consent agenda was the paving of three county roads: one in the wilderness and two in Ag country. In May, County management moved $2,000,000 from Economic Development and the Transportation Trust Fund into a new fund called Capital Improvements. The fund was arranged in the back rooms by County Manager Ben Scott. For all practical purposes, it allocates $400,000 to each commissioner for the funding of under the radar special projects. On Thursday night, with the help of the other three of The 5, District 1 commissioner Ronald Williams dipped into the fund for $400k and District 5's Scarlet Frisina dipped into the fund for $163,000.

Background: Slush Fund

Christie: in the middle of nowhere - ends at the forest's edge.            ++ enlarge

In the years preceding the Great Recession of 2008, the County 5 had set up an illegal 1/4 million dollar slush fund to divvy up among them: $50,000 for each commissioner. Wheeling and dealing like they do in Tallahassee and Washington, The 5 gave out projects to favored constituents.

The Great Recession dried up the ballooning tax base and the slush fund was shut down.

As the County recovered, The 5 took to the practice of walking different items onto the meeting agendas and just handing out special projects.

But the old favorite, a slush fund for The 5, was missing.

Background: Roads

Between February 2014 and May 19, 2016 (a budget workshop) not one word was mentioned in the County minutes regarding the three roads that were approved last Thursday night: Christie – Ron Williams, Dist. 1; Young and Sherlock Terrace – Scarlet Frisina, Dist. 5. Both are running for re-election.

In May 2014, Kevin Kirby, then Director of Operations, listed Christie as a .3 mile unpaved road with a surface of milling.

Recently, the County 5 purchased $1.5mil worth of milling ($750,000 discounted) from Anderson Columbia. Commissioner Williams explained that milling was a superior road material for surfacing country roads. Commisioner Frisina agreed.

Mr. Kirby described Young as .23 mile and paved; Sherlock as .65 miles and unpaved.

During the May 19, 2016 budget workshop, Mr. Scott presented a 4 year work plan for roads: absent were Christie, Wm Young, and Sherlock. During the workshop, the minutes reflect that there was nothing mentioned about a special $2 mil capital improvement fund.

Then, during the May 19, 2016 regular meeting of The 5, County Manager Scott, with the approval of The 5's chairman Sylvester "Bucky" Nash, slipped into the evening's consent agenda a $2,000,000 budget transfer, taking $1,700,000 from the Transportation Trust fund and 300k from the Economic Development bank account.

The County described the $2mil as "excess" funds. Your reporter asked for an explanation. The minutes tell the tale, "County Manager Scott explained." That's all the minutes say.

During this time, the County was in the process of borrowing $3.5mil of "New Money for Transportation Projects." (Translation: road projects)

On June 2, 2016, County Manager Scott, again with the approval of Chairman Nash, added to the Consent Agenda a budget transfer of $400,000 to pave Christie Street, a road in the middle of no-where that heads directly into the forest.

There was no supporting information provided for this item. There was no public discussion. The 5 voted unanimously to approve the expenditure.

Thursday at The 5: Dipping into the slush

Since 2014, County Manager Scott, during County meetings, brought up roads on at least 5 occasions. A road improvement is considered a capital improvement.

Added into the July 7, 36 item consent agenda, the place where The 5 generally does its real business, were two road items.

Young and Sherlock: in the middle of an Ag area with many unpaved roads.
                                         ++ enlarge

The first: $163,000 to pave Young (Rd. or Ln.) and Sherlock Terrace; the second: the award of $183,000 to Anderson Columbia, the same folks who just sold The County 5 $1.5mil of milling to pave Christie with asphalt.

Before the meeting your reporter asked Chairman Nash to pull the two road items off the consent agenda and put them on the discussion agenda.

Mr. Nash refused.

Your reporter then asked Commissioner Phillips to pull the items. Commissioner Phillips stared back blankly.

Finally, Commissioner DePratter agreed to pull the items.

Commissioner Williams volunteered that it made no difference to him. "I'm votin' for it anyway," he said.

Once again, there was no supporting information provided to The 5 or the public explaining the necessity of the roads, or even where they were.

Both items were unanimously approved without a word.

The Road into the Forest: Already Paved

"I couldn't believe it. The road was already paved."

On July 10, Ralph Kitchens decided to take a drive and check out Christie road. He told the Observer, "I couldn't believe it. The road was already paved. There was road construction equipment still there. My odometer showed three miles of road. I had to check my GPS to see if I was in the right place. The road leads right into the forest."


The Columbia County 5 from left to right: Commissioners Ronald Williams;
Rusty DePratter; Bucky Nash; Everett Phillips; Scarlet Frisina

The County 5 slush fund is reborn, alive and well.

The Sunshine law is not. Up until the moment the road items appeared on the County's consent agendas, there was not one word of public discussion or documentation to backup or explain the necessity of paving these three roads.

Road Photos by RK for the Observer

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