The Jack Berry Highway: Will the Columbia Cnty 5 Allow This Tax Watch Turkey to Take Flight?
Posted Feb. 2, 2017 | final version 03:28 pm | updated Feb. 16, 2017
Auth Manager (in blue) watching the unnecessary deforestation of the area in June. During this time the sub-rosa preparation for the Jack Berry Highway was underway.
COLUMBIA COUNTY – The Lake Shore Hospital Authority "Jack Berry Highway" has been steeped in secrecy for years. The third version of the Florida Department of Transportation's (DOT) "Lake Shore Hospital Emergency Access Study" is still identified as a "Draft."
The study's introduction claims that the "FL Legislature earmarked $2.1 million in fiscal year 2016-17 for the engineering, right-of-way, and construction of access improvements to Lake Shore Hospital." A spokesperson for DOT said this is not true and the "only funds that have been provided to DOT are $410,000 for design."
The draft report does not state how the rest of the project will be funded, if it will ever be funded, or if the Water Management District was contacted regarding wetland mitigation and permitting.
Regarding the building through a wetlands, the DOT draft report states in relevant part: new road alignments travel through portions of undeveloped natural land. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has a national wetland inventory, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has a soils survey. Wetlands are prevalent east of Lake DeSoto, as are hydric soils. Building in a wetland area requires a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers and possibly other considerations. Hydric soils are formed under conditions of saturation, flooding, or ponding, and are typical of wetland areas. It is difficult to build on hydric soils; therefore, construction may be costly.
The DOT report fails to mention that the proposed route for the Jack Berry Highway is in and in-between two major flood zones.
Image from County PowerPoint, which distorted the DOT proportions, a lot. ++ enlarge
The City-County-LSHA Jack Berry Hwy
The Thought Began in 2012 with Political Operative Berry
The idea of the Jack Berry Highway first came to light in 2012.
On March 12, 2012, the Lake Shore Hospital Authority Board agreed to fund the $30,000 cost of the survey and geotechnical drillings for a "concept" road "southeast of the hospital."
On May 11, 2012, the first official meeting of the City-County-LSHA was scheduled to occur in the Lake City, City Council chambers to discuss the road.
Scheduled to attend were representatives and elected representatives from the City, County, and the Authority's Manager, Jack Berry.
City Manager Johnson opined about the notice requirement of the meeting, "Personally, I don't see a need for noticing as I am sure it will go much smoother without Lilker (your reporter) who would be the only one to come."
City Clerk Audrey Sikes requested an opinion from noted 1st Amendment Attorney and General Counsel for the First Amendment Foundation, Jon Kaney.
A few days later, based on Mr. Kaney's response and intervening confusion, Ms. Sikes recommended cancelling the meeting.
On May 14, 2012, Lake Shore Hospital Authority Manager Berry announced during an Authority Board meeting that he would be "negotiating" with the City and the County regarding the routes to the hospital of the new road. During that meeting Mr. Berry mentioned that the Hospital would be making a contribution.
Additionally, Mr. Berry said, "Before anything is actually spent we'll be comin' back to the Board with the plan to be approved by all three entities." (City-County-Hospital Authority)
Finally, according to the Authority minutes of May 14, Board member Marc Vann said, "The LSHA had nothing to do with the road project."
Leon Street: one of the present routes to the ER. There is almost no traffic on this road.
In February of 2013, according the Authority minutes, Mr. Berry gave an update of the road and said that he should have four options with costs "next month to determine the most feasible route." He did, with the costs ranging from $292k to $958K. The Board approved the $958k plan.
The road issue was silent for a year when Mr. Berry announced at the February 2014 Authority meeting that City and County agreed to split the cost of an engineer for $70-$75k. (Authority minutes)
In March of 2014, Mr. Berry said that funding for the road had been requested from the state. (Authority minutes)
2015 Was a Year of Silence
The special ER entrance for ambulances.
For the next year, 2015, nothing was mentioned about the road during any public LSHA board meeting.
In February 2016, the Authority minutes state, "Mr. Tim Murphy questions status of funding for road. Mrs. Creel stated she presented to the Governor and he is working on it." The Authority minutes are silent on any of the specifics of the conversation at the Board, or the way in which Board member Creel "presented to the Governor" somebody's request for money.
Silence followed through August 2016, when Mr. Berry announced that he was meeting with DOT. He then went silent again and there was no further mention at the Authority Board regarding the road.
The Jack Berry Highway: The County's Participation
The only mention of the LSHA Access Road Project by the County occurred in a County 5 workshop on May 3, 2012. There was vague discussion about the project, and Community Redevelopment Funding. The 5 approved a motion which stated, the County "[would] hold $40,000 in abeyance for the purpose of contributing to the project. The money will be held until there is confirmation that the City and the management of Lake Shore are going to contribute to the project as indicated."
The County 5 never publically, that's where they lawfully perform their duties as a board, approved the project or agreed that the County or any representative of the County would send a letter to anyone asking for money on behalf of the Board. The project had no publically known name.
Lake City's Participation
There is a road around the lake (hospital across the lake) with has almost no traffic and is accessible from U.S. 90, a few blocks down from the DOT proposed entrance to the new road, which will run through a wetlands and flood zone.
An examination of the City Council minutes and Community Redevelopment Authority and Community Redevelopment Advisory Committee minutes do not reveal any approval of the Jack Berry Highway, the access road to the hospital, or "Lake Shore Boulevard" the name Mr. Johnson used to reference the project.
Through a public records request, the City Clerk's Office did a City-wide search of its onboard document storage system for the term "Lake Shore Boulevard."
The City responded to the request in relevant part, "I was unable to find any resolutions or City Council motion ... that mentioned Lake Shore Boulevard."
Bogus Information Provided to Representative Porter
On February 2, 2015, County Manager Ben Scott, purporting to represent the County Commission, sent a letter to Representative Elizabeth Porter requesting $2.1mil to fund what they considered "improved access" to Lake Shore Hospital. The letter claimed that the County had determined the necessity of improved access. There is nothing in any County Board minutes which shows that the County Commission determined this need and authorized a request from Tallahassee for this money.
The County's letter labeled the project "Lake Shore Boulevard."
Coincidentally, on the same day, February 2, 2015, Lake Shore Hospital Authority Manager and political operative Jackson P. "Jack" Berry sent a letter to Representative Elizabeth Porter claiming that the LSHA supported the appropriation request for Lake Shore Boulevard.
On February 3, 2015, Lake City Mayor Stephen Witt sent a letter of support for the Lake Shore Boulevard Project. As mentioned above, there is no record in the City of any mention of Lake Shore Boulevard.
City Manager Wendell Johnson followed up with Ms. Porter on March 7, 2015. Mr. Johnson's letter began, "On behalf of the City of Lake City, we provide this letter in partnership with the Columbia County BOCC and the Lake Shore Hospital Authority for the construction of a new 'east side' road."
Mr. Johnson concluded his letter, "On behalf of the Mayor and the City Council..." As mentioned, the City Council never approved anything.
Finally, on December 2, 2015, Rep. Elizabeth Porter forwarded a letter to the Transportation and Economic Development Appropriation Subcommittee proclaiming her support for a project that was never approved by the County, Lake City, or the LSHA.
Traffic on Main Street is barely noticeable. According to the DOT, the traffic lights are operable from the ambulances.
Based on this bogus information DOT, with the help of political operative Jack Berry, did a study, which no one ever knew about except Columbia County's good ole' boys.
Tonight, Feb. 2, 2017, County Manager Ben Scott added to the agenda a resolution approving the Jack Berry Highway.
The resolution was given the stamp of approval by County Attorney Joel Foreman.
A resolution supporting the design of a road that is demonstratively unneeded and may eventually be paid for by either the taxpayers of Columbia County; the taxpayers of Florida; or the U.S. Government.
Epilogue: The Need
Yesterday morning and for part of the afternoon your reporter spoke with people in the neighborhood along the ambulance route to the hospital and about the necessity of moving the helipad.
The locals said they rarely saw ambulances speeding to the hospital. No one from the hospital would go on record stating that there was a need to build the $2.1mil road or move the helipad.
Shands at Lake Shore is not a trauma center and 911 patients are not flown into Shands in Lake City.