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Columbia County 5 vs. Town of Fort White, Good Will and a Partnership, or Outright Extortion?

Coluumbia County Observer photo and graphic

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – The November 3 Columbia County – Fort White joint meeting kicked off with Fort White in Commissioner Ronald Williams' prayers, "Father, we always need your help and your guidance… We were hoping that the Town Council of Fort White would be here." They weren't, and the County knew that the Town Attorney and Mayor would not be attending the meeting. It did not make a difference. The County 5 was marching on.

For decades, the Town of Fort White was invisible, and the County and the Town got along. A couple of years ago, County Commissioner Rocky Ford decided to develop a subdivision just outside the Fort White Town limits. His property was annexed into the Town without incident.

On Wednesday evening, Fort White was invisible except for Town Councilman Bill Koon (blue shirt), who said he was not attending the meeting as a Town Councilman.

Then, the Town Council changed. Two new Fort White businessmen joined the Council. The Town Manager changed. Council members and the Mayor began asking questions and paying attention to the Town’s Land Development Regulations. Citizens began paying close attention to the outsized subdivision of County Commissioner Rocky Ford, just sitting on the inside of the outskirts of the Town.

Columbia County began traveling to Fort White Town Hall to attend the Rocky Ford subdivision hearings en masse (read: County Manager David Kraus, Asst. County Manager and Public Works Director Kevin Kirby, County Commissioner Tim Murphy, North Florida Professional Services (NFPS) unregistered lobbyist, and N. FL. Legend Dale Williams, former County Planner and new NFPS planning expert Brandon Stubbs).

Interestingly, NFPS is a County Engineering Consultant, Town of Fort White Engineering Consultant, and Commissioner Rocky Ford (Lisa’s Land) Gwynn Farms subdivision engineer.

NFPS is also the engineer for a water line connecting Ellisville and Fort White (a Columbia County project) and a wastewater plant in Fort White (a Fort White project).

NFPS is developing Water and Wastewater utility master plans for Columbia County. So far, NFPS has been able to change its master plans on the fly to suit its engineering plans.

NFPS is also the driving force behind the concept of a regional multi-county utility. Recently, The Suwannee River Water Management District has acted as the agent for NFPS in this endeavor.

North Florida Profession Services: Now you see them – Now you see them, again.

Brian Roche of NFPS
NFPS's Brian Roche explains utility finances.

During last Wednesday’s County 5 – non-Fort White meeting, NFPS's Brian Roche presented an overview, including a financial analysis of the County and Fort White utilities and an update of the Water and Wastewater Master Plans NFPS is developing.

NFPS's head honcho, Greg Bailey, introduced Mr. Roche, telling The 5 that Mr. Roche, besides being a Professional Engineer (PE), is a CPA. Mr. Roche is well-spoken and intelligent.

Unfortunately, he talked a little fast and was almost impossible to follow as he presented his PowerPoint presentation. Mr. Roche's failure to number his slides and forgetting his laser pointer made things more difficult.

The long story short, Mr. Roche told the gathering not to expect to make money from its utilities.

The Ellisville – Ft. White Pipeline

Fort White received a million-dollar legislative appropriation and used it toward solving the drinking water problems in the Town by investing $978k on engineering and water pipe for a pipeline that the County was (is) supposed to build from Ellisville to Fort White.

The pipeline is two years behind schedule. The County has threatened on more than one occasion not to build the line. Recent discussions at The 5 revolved around the sudden need for water at Ellisville because of the proposed expansion of the Busy-Bee. The unplanned expansion will stretch the present Ellisville water capacity.

At the end of August, after two years, the County put out a bid for the building of the pipeline. There was trouble – bid protests, and it appears the County will rebid the project. It is not clear if the plan is intentional or if the project actually has to be rebid.

The word from the inside is the County’s stalling is not an accident.

The County has hired a Tallahassee attorney to investigate. Consultants usually do what the folks that pay them want them to do. Translation: the outcomes are bought.

Kevin Kirby, Assistant County Manager and head of Public Works, said, “The manager (County Manager David Kraus) took no further action until this joint meeting took place."

The County wants Fort White to partner with it in a County regional utility and is exerting pressure any way it can to force the Town's hand.

Rocky Ford, Chairman of the Columbia County County Commission
County Chairman, Commissioner Rocky Ford.

Five minutes into Wednesday’s meeting, Commissioner Ford updated his tune from previous meetings. He said, “The County made a motion to build the pipeline. I think we should proceed. Anybody have an issue with that?”

Long-time County Commissioner Ronald Williams followed up, “I don't -- I don't have an issue with it. But all of this talkin’ about a utility authority between the Town of Fort White and the Board of County Commissioners, it - that has to be addressed… I think that we should have an agreement with the Town of Fort White on the rate and all that before we run the first line. Why are we going to run everything, and we don't have a rate yet set that's been accepted by Fort White?”

Commissioner Ford said, “As it stands, the Board of County Commissioners is obligated to run that water line.”

County Manager Kraus said the County runs the Fort White Water Plant and charges the customers directly. “As of right now, we have an interlocal agreement. As long as we're operating under that interlocal agreement, we run the water plant.”

Columbia County pays the Town $25k a year to run the Town's water system.

Commissioner Murphy gave his take on the water line [as spoken]: “Let’s cut to the chase. I mean they have puttin' down 78 towards what this attorney is askin' for here. And here's the deal. We've all lived it, everybody, I'm pretty sure, on this Board. If that system goes defunct, let's be realistic: Fort White don't have the money to put a system in. In the state of Florida -- I'm not gonna to speak for the legislature -- but I would assume -- when we are sittin’ on a $7 million line coming from Ellisville, they're surely not going to appropriate funds to put a well – unintelligible.”

Commissioner Ford said, “No matter what happens from this point on, that water line needs to be run.”

The 5 is willing to end the line at the Town’s border.

Commissioner Williams, “I don't think any of us is sayin’ we don't need to run the line. They're just sayin’ we need some checks and balances before we run the line."

Commissioner Tim MurphyCommissioner Murphy said, “You cannot convince me that we got contaminated wells sittin’ out there in the city of Fort White, and DEP knows there's water lines sittin' right down there a quarter a mile outside the city limits -- guess what -- they're fixin' to shut that one down. We fixin’ to go pump the water.”

Commissioner Murphy continued, “With what we all know in this room, as commissioners, that's comin’ down the chain here in the very near future, I don't want to be huntin’ $7 million year in 18-20 months tryin’ to figure out how we're gonna get clean water to Fort White. We’ll be truckin’ water down there. I say, ‘Let’s put the line in, and let me feed the artwork for us."

Commissioner Hollingsworth said, “I agree with Tim.”

Commissioner Ford said, “At the end of the day, we still need expansion in the South end of the County... You’re only talkin’ about a small segment of that line inside the city limits of Fort white; most of that line is still going to be in the County."

Commissioner Ford continued a little while later, “So is it safe to say that you all got direction to move forward with the water line?"

Fort White – The Subsidy

On August 5, 2021, the County and the Town entered into an interlocal agreement that called for the County to operate Fort White's water utility.

This Interlocal Agreement called for the County to pay Fort white $25,000 a year “to provide additional support for the town's continuing operational functions."

Commissioner Murphy commented about the subsidy, "I voted on subsidizing the city of Fort White $25,000. I would never do that again."

What Does the County Do For Fort White?

Commissioner Everett Phillips
Commissioner Everett Phillips

An hour and 25 minutes into the meeting, the County wanted to let the world know what it did for Fort White.

Fort White is a small community with approximately 650 residents and 305 registered voters.

Fort White does not collect ad valorem taxes. However, Fort White residents pay the full complement of County taxes and fees.

Asst. County Manager Kirby said there were seven interlocal agreements between the County and the Town. Nobody brought them; the County Attorney named them. There may be more than seven.

All the interlocals have to do with either folks that live in the South End of the County, in the Fort White Town limits, or folks passing through the Town.

There is also a County Library branch in the Town, and it may be one of the few libraries in Florida that are not visible from the road, as it sits back in the woods.

County attorney Joel Foreman pointed out that one of the interlocals provides traffic signal maintenance. No one mentioned this is a safety issue for everyone.

There was a time when the County schemed to have its planner do planning in Fort White. The County wanted to charge Fort White $10,000 a year. Folks in the know will tell you this was a scheme by the County manager to get the planner a $10,000 raise without digging into the County coffers.

County Manager David Kraus pointed out that there is a fire station in Fort White, and the County owned and run recreational fields. There's also a community center in Fort White, which is County owned, but managed by the Town.

Commissioner Ford, whose district includes Fort White, asked, “Do we charge Fort White for any of these services?”

The County does not and never has.

“We Never Had This Problem…Suspend All Interlocal Agreements”

Commissioner Ronald Williams
Commissioner Ronald Williams made a motion to suspend all interlocal agreements with the Town of Fort White.

Commissioner Williams said, “We never had this problem in the past Town Council. It seem like this new Council just want to be independent, and I'm gonna make a motion to suspend all interlocal agreements until we sit down with the Town and hash it out."

Commissioner Murphy seconded the motion.

Commissioner Ford said that he did not think suspension was the right route to go. “We just can't cut ‘em off all at one time."

Commissioner Williams said he just wanted to "enter a termination phase." “We need to sit down and talk, everybody. And if it takes this to do it than by George, let's do it this way."

Commissioner Murphy: "Mr. Williams, I concur… the ball’s in their court… I could definitely back that 100%."

Commissioner Ford: "Let me clarify, the motion on the floor is to give Fort White notice that we're terminating all interlocal agreements with them."

Commissioner Robby Hollingsworth
Commissioner Robby Hollingsworth listens to Fort White Councilman Bill Koon.

Commissioner Hollingsworth: “We have to do this to make sure we all get together."

County Attorney Foreman suggested an option: “Notify them that if the Town Council doesn’t come to the table in 30 days, then we intend to terminate.”

The only Town Councilman to attend the meeting was Bill Koon, who told The 5 earlier that he was at the meeting to see what was happening and not attending as a Town Councilman.

Mr. Koon said, “It sounds like a bullying technique to me. Is it?"

Commissioner Williams said, “No, it's not bullying."

Mr. Koon asked, “You’re tryin’ to cut off all the interlocals because you can't get together on the [water] authority."

The County wants the Town to join a joint utility authority with it. A combined authority would allow the County to leverage the Town’s location and make the County eligible for millions in grants.

Mr. Koon pointed out that all the interlocals, except the Water Authority, have been agreed upon. “Right, he asked.”

There was silence from The 5.

The meeting had just passed the two-hour mark without much being accomplished.

Commissioner Williams withdrew his original motion and replaced it. He said, “If we don't have a meetin’ 30 days to iron this out, we will start the process on terminating the agreements."

With everyone talking at the same time, it wasn't clear who said the meeting had to be in Lake City.

Bill Koon asked, “Why does every meetin’ have to be up here?"

County Manager Kraus said the Board has to make a resolution to appear outside the Lake City limits.

That is not difficult to accomplish. The fact is that some members of the County 5 do not want to show their faces at a joint meeting in the South End of the County.

A half-hour later, Commissioner Ford surprised everyone by announcing there would be a rebid for the Ellisville – Fort White pipeline. This is before the unnamed Tallahassee attorney rendered an opinion on the validity of the bids and bid process. A rebid will stall the project.

Before the meeting was concluded, Commissioner Ford clarified the time, date, and location of the proposed County 5 – Town Council meeting.

Commissioner Ford, who could walk from his home to the Fort White Community Center for a joint County-Town meeting, said Fort White could set the time and date for the meeting, but not the location, which he wants in Lake City.

It was clear that Commissioner Ford does not want to face many of the folks in Fort White and the South End. His allies on the Board are backing him up.


The next steps are up to the Town.

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