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Town of Fort White Utility Slam-Dunk Foiled: Lake City and Private Utility Rain on Fort White - Columbia County Parade

Pt I – The Fort White Columbia County Connection

City Manager Joe Helfenberger addresses the Fort White Town Council.

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL –  In September 2019, Ft. White Mayor Ronnie Frazier and District 2 Commissioner Rocky Ford appeared before the County’s Legislative Delegation looking for money to cure Fort White’s water woes. Monday night, Commissioner Ford appeared in Ft. White with the County Manager and three of The 5 to pitch the County’s utility services. The County was on the Town’s agenda.

Monday morning, Lake City, City Manager Joe Helfenberger, asked to be put on the Town's agenda. He was advised it was too late. Undeterred, he appeared at the Fort White Town Council Meeting with City Councilman Todd Sampson and two City Utility team members.

When Fort White Mayor Frazier opened the microphone for public comments, Mr. Helfenberger presented the City’s case for a utility partnership with Fort White.

City Manager Joe Helfenberger pitches Lake City Utilities to the Fort White Town Council.
City Manager Joe Helfenberger pitches Lake City Utilities to the Fort White Town Council.

Mr. Helfenberger told the Town Council: "We're your neighbor. We would like an opportunity for you to consider a proposal from the City to partner with Fort White to provide water and sewer service to the people of Fort White. We aren't a known entity. We have a very stable and self-supporting utility. If you decide to do something else, I believe it would be in your best interest also to hear us – and as many proposals as you possibly could."

Mr. Helfenberger explained the City has a water line in Columbia City, 11 miles from the baseball fields in Fort white.

He said, “The cost to run the pipe would be just under about $4mil. It would be possible to fund much of the project from grants, and there would be minimal maintenance and cost. The City has won awards for the quality and taste of its water.”

Mr. Helfenberger said that hooking up with the City would provide a path for economic growth. He explained that the Town could decide its level of involvement.

Mr. Helfenberger said, “We would like the chance to make a proposal to you at an upcoming meeting.”

City Manager Helfenberger concluded, “You would have increased control on how your utilities are structured. You will have a lot less expenses in the future with Lake City water.”

City Councilman Todd Sampson addresses the Fort White Town Council
City Councilman Todd Sampson.

Newly elected Lake City Councilman Todd Sampson followed up, telling the Town Council, "I'm with the City Council of Lake City. Mr. Helfenberger is right… Fort White has a unique identity. I think that's one thing you don't want to lose. If you start bringing in for-profit regional utilities to manage your utilities, what's that going to do for the people?"

Councilman Sampson suggested that it would be a good idea for Fort White to give the City a chance to bid on the system.

He said, "There is the future possibility of collaboration for wastewater. That's a big deal. You want to take the next step with your protected springs and items. There is another option we can help you with down the road."

Councilman Sampson Concluded, “With two municipalities working together, there are a lot more grants available -- there is a lot more opportunity… Just give us an opportunity to give you a full proposal.”

Columbia County Makes Its Pitch

All Town of Fort White residents and Lake City residents are Columbia County residents and pay the full complement of taxes to the County. There are no discounts.

In a February 16, 2021, letter to Fort White, County Manager David Kraus asked to be put on the agenda to "to discuss the water supply project and the possibility of negotiating a Memorandum of Understanding between the Town of Fort White and Columbia County."

This project is valued in the millions.

Newly installed County Manager David Kraus took the lead for Columbia County and came to the microphone.

Columbia County, County Manager David Kraus addresses the Fort White Town Council
County Manager David Kraus.

He said, “Long story short: we worked with you for the past couple of years. I supported your proposals with the state… We understand the condition of the water system and your water supply… I’m not here to sell you on anything. I know every salesman says that, but I’m not.”

Mr. Kraus discussed the Town’s options: putting in a well field instead of piping in water. Or to continue to operate a [water] treatment facility.

He asked, “Would you prefer to tie into Ellisville because we’re relatively close by and have plenty of capacity? We feel strongly that tying into Ellisville makes a lot of sense.”

He said that Ellisville's water (about 15 miles away) would be potable (drinkable) water, allowing the Town to get out of the water treatment business.

Mr. Kraus explained that at the last meeting [Feb. 18] of the County 5, the staff asked for permission from The 5 to enter into negotiations with the Town and determine what terms the Town wanted.

Mr. Kraus said, “We’re coming to you for permission to talk to you about negotiating how you would like this to work. One of the options that was mentioned at the meeting was forming an interlocal agreement between the two cities - at some point to form a utility Authority, which means you would always have a seat at the table in deciding what happens with that utility…”

Mr. Kraus continued, “We’re not telling you what to decide tonight. We’re asking, I guess, for your endorsement that we proceed with negotiations so we can figure out what's in your best needs and, you know, how we can work together to make sure that we can provide you with clean water.”

Mr. Kraus concluded, “I’ve got three commissioners here tonight if you have any questions for them.”

As Mr. Kraus finished up, Commissioner Rocky Ford was on his way to the microphone.

Commissioner Rocky Ford address the Town Council.
Commissioner Rocky Ford address the Town Council.

Commissioner Ford, whose son-in-law was recently installed on the Town Council, explained that he and Fort White Mayor Ronnie Frasier worked together for the last two years. "I think at this time, to abandon the County would be a great mistake for the Town of Fort White. We've been by your side from the beginning. I am a resident of Fort White. I have a lot of interest in this Town. We're gonna' do what we can for the Town of Fort White."

Commissioner Ford said, “I don’t know when the City decided it was in their best interest to jump into this deal, but they haven't offered anything for the last two years. Just keep that in mind.”

Forty-year veteran member of The 5, Ronald Williams, explained that 55 years ago he met a girl in Fort White and married her. He said that Fort White and Columbia County had had a good relationship over the years, and the County was trying to improve the lifestyle of Fort White "by partnering with you all in an interlocal agreement to form a authority that benefits Fort White and Columbia County… We'll be here with you as we have in the past – we'll be with you in the future."

County Manager Kraus added, “Fort White is part of Columbia County, and we feel we are a good partner.

Mayor Frazier asked, “Do you need some direction tonight, David?”

County Manager Kraus replied, “We just need to know that the board wants to negotiate with us. We’re not trying to force something on you.”

The New Guy On The Block – The Commissioner's Son-in-Law, Fort White Town Councilman William D. Bishop II

Newly installed Fort White Town Councilman William Bishop.
Newly installed Town Councilman William Bishop.

On December 7, 2020, the Town Council voted to replace Councilman James Richardson, who resigned to run for Mayor, with Commissioner Rocky Ford’s son-in-law, William D. Bishop II.

Councilman Bishop weighed in: “I’ve done a little research on it. Basically, they're gonna take care of everything. The County’s willin’ to step in and say, ya know, you all just tap right in we’ll help ya… We’re a very hot topic in the utility business right now.”

Mr. Bishop continued, "I've been here my whole life, and I've seen about two City of Lake City trucks in this town my whole life; for the City of Lake City to come down tonight – somethin's up."

Mayor Frazier added that he and the County had made several trips to Tallahassee.

County resident Rob Summerall served in the Florida Legislature as Representative Liz Porter's Chief of Staff and is experienced in political protocol.

He wanted to know if the Town was going to review more than one proposal.

As he spoke, Councilman Bishop kept interrupting him. Mr. Bishop said, “The County has done many good things for this community.”

County Commissioner Tim Murphy

Commissioner Tim Murphy weighed in on the GUA (Government Utility Authority).

Commissioner Tim Murphy.

He told the Town Council: "This is not a 12-month deal. Ms. Encinosa [a partner with the law firm NGN] from Tallahassee, she said this was gonna be a long, winding, expensive road if we decide to go down that road. I don't want to set out the perception here that we're gonna have a utility Authority in 12 months. That ain't gonna happen. You got to get out there and experience and understand all the things -- there's a lot of legal ramifications here that I'm sure Mr. Koberlein ain't got a clue about, and I know Joel (County Attorney Joel Foreman) ain't.”

Commissioner Williams added that at the moment, this was just about the Town and the County joining together to form a regional utility. He said, "That would set the framework in developin' the Authority that we are talkin' about."

Commissioner Ford said, “I agree with Mr. Murphy, it's not going to be something that's going to happen tomorrow… you have to start somewhere. The sooner we start, the better off we'll all be.”

Mayor Frazier – Did He Have a Hidden Agenda?

Mayor Frazier asked, “Does the board at want to give direction to Mr. Koberlein [Town Counsel] -- I guess to move forward with the County?"

After a short discussion, Mayor Frazier said, "With the Board's permission, I say let's give the County permission to move forward. You all agree?"

Mr. Bishop said, "Yes, sir."

Continued in Part II: Town of Fort White Utility Slam-Dunk Foiled: Pushback --The Rest of the Story, Plus, Serious Attorney Ethics Problem

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