Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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County 5 Scrambling to Fund $50+ Million of New Capital Projects – Public Left Out, Again

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – The Columbia County 5's meeting on December 7, 2017, will live in infamy as the meeting where at least one commissioner, District 2's Rusty DePratter said, "I'm guilty. I did let myself get talked into this, but I can change my mind... I should have stepped in."

The Sheriff
New Jail, New Communication System

Columbia County's Sheriff, the only Sheriff in Florida who is guaranteed a percentage of a county's non-restricted revenue (presently 39%), a deal facilitated in the back corridors of the County and presented to the public at the 12th hour, is looking for a new jail (cost: approx $30mil) and a new communications system.

The communication system's final cost is a moving target. Originally, the Sheriff was shooting for an $18 mil system. Now, the system depending on the tower Buildout, including upgrades over the next 10 years, but not including financing, is expected to cost about $10 mil.

Total cost for the Sheriff's improvements: $40,000,000 plus the cost of financing. Interest on the new jail will be approximately $10,000,000.

County residents will be on the hook for at least $50,000,000, while the Sheriff will still be collecting 39% of the County's non restricted revenue. Unlike his predecessor, Sheriff Hunter never publically presents his budget, nor does he field questions from the County 5 or the public during budget season.

Any questions the County 5 have are taken care of in the back corridors or funneled through the County Manager.

The County 5
New Admin Building – Another Moving Target

The search for administrative space in Columbia County has been ongoing since 2002. At that time a Property Review Committee was formed. The committee determined that 25,000 sq ft were needed; the cost of building was $100 sq ft; reviewed various pieces of property.

In 2002, the old Lake City Medical Center, which is now being leased for the Supervisor of Elections and other County offices, was assessed at $917,174 and privately appraised at $2,450,000. The price was negotiable. It is located on 5.83 acres and is 56,200 sq ft.

Through the years, there were various space needs assessments, searches, and the usual County 5 talking and inaction.

For the past three years, the public has been effectively cut out of the loop.

Recently, without any public input, advertising, public hearings, or anything which would have given the residents of the county at least a platform to share their vision of a new administrative complex and its location, the County drew a site plan for an administrative complex which was outside of the county seat and far from the downtown and City offices.

The plan is to spend $10,000,000 on the outlier project.

December 12, 2017
Discussion at The 5: Hocus Pocus

The County is planning to ask the voters to approve a Charter County Regional Transportation Systems Surtax, a special one cent sales tax that is available to charter counties. The money has to be spent on roads, bridges and road infrastructure.

The County will take the revenue from the new surtax and deposit it in the Transportation Trust Fund, taking a comparable amount out of the Trust Fund and use that to finance the new Jail.

Concerned that the residents will vote down the tax, Commissioner Nash said The 5 had to "come up with a strategy to educate the public on our thoughts... It's a matter of how we educate the public."

Commissioner DePratter added, "We need to explain where the money is going to be used so the public will know. And we need to do that pretty quick before we start."

County Attorney Foreman had concerns, "I think that's where you could run into an issue with this because the taxing power is very limited. There is a very limited list of reasons you can use. None of those include building a jail or building an admin building... What we would not want to do is prepare an ordinance that said the reason for this tax is to build a jail, because at that point we could violate the statute. So we do have to be artful in how we do this."

Commissioner Williams went for clarity: "People say, 'Transportation tax -- how you goin' to use it to build a jail?' Then I explain to em', 'Well, we got x amount of dollars in the road department. We'll pull that up -- unrestricted money and supplant it with money that we raise from gas tax.' And then they say, 'Oh, I see now.' Here again it's education that we have to do."

Commissioner Murphy weighed in, "I understand you're not going to be able to put in -- in black and white to explain the rearrangement of the funds to build - fund - you know - to build this jail."

County Attorney Foreman agreed, "Probably not to the extent necessary. Yes sir."

County Manager Ben Scott
Asks for Approval of an $8,000,000 Loan

Mr. Scott told The 5, "If you recall during the budget workshops we discussed building an administrative complex to be located on Lake Jeffrey Road. A couple of meetings ago I asked to go forward with placing the RFP (Request for Proposals) out for bid for the loan."

The bids came back and Mr. Scott asked for approval of the $8,000,000 loan.

The County 5 never approved the Lake Jeffrey Road location.

Your reporter, who is also a resident and property owner in the county, told The 5:

This is the classic example why people don't trust government. This is putting the cart before the horse. The people have not been involved in the discussion of this, at all. Yet you want to go out and borrow $8 million. Without public input this is just like what goes on in Washington. It looks like we have five Washington Senators and Congressmen sitting up there. There are 12,000 people in the City. Usually when somebody builds something like this it is an exciting time for the public. You guys have taken the heart and soul out of this and totally eliminated the public from any part of the decision making of this by putting this out in the boondocks in a place that is not in the City.

Commissioner Phillips asked if the location was in the City.

Mr. Scott said the County could adopt the County Seat.

Commissioner Phillips wanted to know why the County was borrowing the money now.

Mr. Scott said that during the past 2 years The 5 spoke about borrowing the money during budget workshops. He explained the building was going to be 50,000 sq. ft.

The size of the admin building was also a moving target.

In April, Mr. Scott presented an estimate for a 40,000 sq ft building @ $150 a sq ft. Cost:  $6,000,000

Then a month later there was a new estimate: 46,000 sq ft @ $160 foot. Cost:  $7,360,000.

Commissioner DePratter Had Enough

Commissioner DePratter spoke out, "I'm going to say I'm guilty. I did let myself be talked into this, but I can change my mind. I just don't agree with borrowing the money yet. We don't have an architect. I should have stepped up. I'd like to get the minutes where we voted on an administrative complex for Lake Jeffrey. I remember we talked about it, but I don't think we ever voted on it. I don't like the location. I think this board should involve the public in where this building is built and on how this building looks, and where this building is put. I don't think it is too late for that to happen."

The County Manager explained, "If the money or part of the money is not used, you can use it for the jail. Your hands are not tied to building an administrative complex on Lake Jeffrey with this $8 million."

Mr. DePratter continued, "We don't know how much this is going to cost us. We should get a plan... When are we going to start doing something besides just spending money?"

Commissioner Nash
Another Point of View

Mr. Nash said, "To me, borrowin' money is making a commitment... Stew, you've had ample opportunity to comment on anything we've done up to this point."

Your reporter responded, "Every time I commented I said the people should be involved. You've never involved them."

Mr. Nash said, "My point is we've been doing it for five years. Why haven't they been involved?"

Your reporter answered, "Because you didn't put out any announcements. Because nobody knew. Because it's what you do."

Mr. Nash said that the board talked about the issues in the workshops.

Your reporter responded, "At nine o'clock in the morning when everybody is working. You know that."

Mr. Nash concluded, "It don't matter... I want to borrow the money and within the next month have a workshop and clear everything out. Let the public be a part, which I think they already have."

Mr. Murphy made a motion to accept the loan proposal. Most of what he said was unintelligible.

The 5 voted unanimously to approve the loan.

Mr. Nash directed the newspaper to write that borrowing the money ($8 million) represented a zero tax increase to the public.

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