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Columbia County Observer

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First County 5 Budget Hearing, a Bust - Sheriff MIA $1.9mil on Consent Agenda - Space Watching

36,780 registered voters – 65,000 residents – 2 new faces at The 5's budget hearing.

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – In 2008, the current chairman of the Columbia County 5, Sylvester "Bucky" Nash, ran on a platform of inclusion, listening, and getting the "people" involved. Four years later and looking forward to another four years after being unopposed in this election cycle, Chairman Nash has changed nothing at the 5's bimonthly meetings. Not including the handful of 'regulars' that attend County 5 meetings, this year's first budget hearing was attended by two members of the public. Conspicuous by his absence was Columbia County's Sheriff Mark Hunter, whose portion of the $38,337,913 County General Fund budget is $15,770,542 (41%).

The budget hearing was uneventful until your reporter went to the microphone and asked for an explanation of the revenue sources of budgeted funds that are not included in the General Revenue Fund, funds such as the $12.1mil Transportation Trust Fund, the $14.7mil Municipal Services Fund, the $4.1mil Landfill Enterprise Fund, etc. These and other funds make up another $60mil+ of the total Columbia County budget.

Space Watching

Chairman Nash stared out into space and ignored the request, asking none of the staff for an explanation. The other 4 of The 5 joined in the space watching.

As Chairman Nash went to move on to the next item on the agenda, County Manager Ben Scott interrupted. He asked to be able to give an explanation of the other funds.

A surprised Mr. Nash nodded. Mr. Scott gave his explanation.

After the meeting Mr. Scott told your reporter, "I understand what happened in the past. I am trying to make the budget as transparent as I possibly can."

While the revenue streams have always been in the budgets, the explanations weren't at the budget hearings. This year there was clarification.

$1,987,334 including $185k for Anderson Columbia
$107k for undocumented lobbying

At the conclusion of the budget hearing the business of The 5 continued.

The evening's consent agenda included $1,987,334 of expenditures.

One item had $185,124 being added to an Anderson Columbia road contract.

Lobbying: No Accountability

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

The yearly contract renewals for County lobbying efforts were again, if approved, going to be handled by the law firms of MHD (Metz, Husband & Daughton, P.A.) and Sniffen & Spellman, P.A.

MHD was charging the County $80,400 or $6,700 a month, plus expenses.

Sniffen was charging the County $27,000 or $2,250 a month, plus expenses.

On November 7, 2013, MHD and Sniffen came out of nowhere to appear on the County agenda. They claimed to be working for the North Florida Water Working Group (NFWWG). Searching back through five years of County documents provided at public meetings, the only time the North Florida Water Working Group was mentioned was by MDH.

MHD and Sniffen's contracts in 2014 and 2015 also claim to be working for the North Florida Water Working Group. If this group existed, it may have been meeting at the Watergate, because there appear to be no Columbia County minutes supporting the existence of the NFWWG, other than for lobbying services.

Since their first contract in 2013, neither MHD, nor Sniffen, have been required to submit itemized billing statements. They still aren't.

This year's contracts state the firms will "provide a written summary of our efforts on the County's behalf upon the conclusion of the 2017 regular legislative session."

The firms will also report to the County Manager "on a regular basis." The method or substance of reporting is not specified.

Your reporter addressed the County 5. He said that a source had never seen them lobby for anything for Columbia County.

Your reporter asked Chairman Nash what the firms provided to show what they did to earn $107,400 plus expenses.

Mr. Nash did more space watching. The other 4 of The 5 joined in.

County Manager Scott volunteered, "I have asked them this year. In the past we have not asked them to maintain exactly what they are doing for us and to provide us a report at year-end of everything that they have done for us during the legislative session -- the upcoming legislative session."

The County has never had any reporting requirement for the two lobbying firms until this year's vague requirement.

$300,000+ Spent: not an iota of documentation

Without any documentation or any questions regarding what Columbia County taxpayers received for its $300,000+ over the past three years, the County 5 voted unanimously to renew the MDH and Sniffen contracts.


The Space Watchers.

It is business as usual with the Nash Board.

The legend of the Columbia County 5 continues.

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