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Town of Fort White To Get $75k From Columbia County Taxpayers For the Privilege of Providing It With Clean Water

photo of free money with the caption: $75,000 of free county taxpayer money headed to Fort White

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL –  Columbia County is rewarding the Town of Fort White with $75,000 over three years for the privilege of providing Fort White residents with clean water. The $75,000 is an infusion of cash into the town's coffers as it tries to extricate itself from its financial difficulties. It is not clear whose idea the $75,000 payoff was.

Fort White: A Little History

City Manager Joe Helfenberger pitches Lake City Utilities to the Fort White Town Council.
In February, City Manager Joe Helfenberger pitched Lake City Utilities to the Fort White Town Council. In the end, he was undercut by both his Assistant City Manager and City Councilman Chris Greene.

For decades, Fort White has mismanaged its finances, had hinky recordkeeping practices and mangled voting procedures.

The poor design of the town's water system is a legend in the area, with those at the end of the water line receiving unusable water.

Fort White's town officials all have said they don't drink the town's water.

Fort White is 2.41 mi.² and has a population of 695 and 448 registered voters.

In 2019 the town's median household income was $41,529, which was 42.6% less than the median annual income of $59,227 across the entire state of Florida.

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

Pushback --The Rest of the Story, Serious Attorney Ethics Problem

During the same period, the County's median income was not much better, at $46,494.

In February of this year, both Lake City and the County made a play for Fort White’s utility business.

Due to poor management, lack of vision, bad public relations, financial constraints, and politics, Lake City could not complete with the County, even though the County's utility history has been problematic and money-losing.

Last Night at the County 5

Last night, County Manager David Kraus updated The 5. He told them: “As you all know, they accepted our proposal to provide the operation and maintenance of their water system and they really want us to move as quickly as possible on this so that we can prepare a budget for the next fiscal year. We are hoping that this would take effect October 1. We would begin operating their water system on October 1."

Dueling Reccomendations

Mr. Kraus continued, “They have indicated there may be some additional comments in the draft document that we have sent you, so what we are basically asking the board to do is to approve the agreement in principle, knowing that when we get the final version of it, we will bring it back to you.”

County Attorney Foreman had a different idea. In a memo to the County 5, dated June 10, Mr. Foreman explained that the Town of Fort White attorney still had the agreement “under further review.”

The Town attorney for Fort White is the controversial Fred Koberlein Jr., also the attorney for Lake City. Mr. Foreman did not reveal his name. (See: Pushback --The Rest of the Story, Serious Attorney Ethics Problem)

Mr. Foreman’s recommendation was the County 5 approve the interlocal agreement before Mr. Koberlein finished his review and submitted his final version.

County Chairman Ford was not waiting for any new versions. He said, “This is my district. I'll make a motion that we approve interlocal agreement with the town of Fort White.”

Your reporter came to the microphone and asked, “The County is going to be paying Fort white $25,000 a year for the privilege of helping them with their water. Is that right?”

County Manager Kraus responded, “The agreement calls for a $25,000 a year payment for three years so that we can lease their facilities; so we can sell water to their customers.”

Your reporter followed up: “That's $75,000 of Columbia County taxpayer dollars over three years to run a failing water system… I've heard time and time again that if they go out of business, we're going to have to take it over…well, they might not go out of business… If the town of Fort White can't control its own finances and hasn't controlled its own finances over all these years…why are you paying them with Columbia County tax dollars for the privilege of doing that? [Running their water system]. If you need to finance their budget and run their town, then take it over...You could teach a lot of kids to read for that.”

Columbia County Commissioner Ronald Williams
Long time Com. Ronald Williams looked at the $75k as an investment in the future.

Commissioner Ronald Williams weighed in: “The residents of Fort White pay County taxes, also. We need Fort White to go where the County is heading for our future in utilities. We still have the concept of bein’ in the utility business, and by having Fort White on our side, I think $75,000 over a three-year period is money well spent to put Columbia County where we need to be in the future when it comes to utilities. We have a partner.”

Chairman Ford followed up: “And they have also agreed to help provide labor for us if we need it and equipment to work on their water system while we were down that way.”

Commissioner Hollingsworth added, “I keep hearin’ that we are using Columbia County taxpayer dollars – their tax dollars.”

Chairman Ford added, “They’re all Columbia County taxpayers.”

Commissioner Hollingsworth followed up, “I hope people understand. They are not separate from us. They are Columbia County.”

Commissioner Tim Murphy had the final word, “As Mr. Williams said, they are an integral part in the step going forth, with whichever path we take in the utility aspect of it.”

Without a final version from Fort White, the County 5 unanimously approved the draft agreement without further comment.


Is the $75,000 the first part of a Fort White financial bailout with more to come?

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