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County 5 – Town of Fort White Utility Pow Wow. Com. Hollingsworth Does Everything But Ask Everyone to Hold Hands & Sing Kumbaya

Columbia County Observer photo & graphic

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – After half a year of bad blood between the County 5 and the Town of Fort White, The 5 did a 180 as Commissioner Robby Hollingsworth opened the long-awaited joint meeting between the County and the Town with a monologue in which he came close to just asking folks to join hands and sing Kumbaya.

After the November 30 joint session was called to order and the Pledge, Commissioner Robby Hollingsworth was granted permission by Chairman Ford to open the meeting. The choreography was evident as the usually good-natured Mr. Hollingsworth was chosen to smooth the waters.

Gone was any mention by the County 5 of the demand to show up, or we're going to end interlocal agreements between the Town and the County or stop doing maintenance and other things in Fort White.

Commissioner Hollingsworth told the gathering how happy he was “for the board to get together and speak about things;” it was better that the Boards met in Lake City rather than Fort White “because the meeting could be broadcast live.”

Mr. Hollingsworth said before the meeting, people asked him, "What's goin' on in Fort White?" Mr. Hollingsworth didn’t volunteer his answer.

Mr. Hollingsworth said, “I also want to say, Fort White, you know I care about Fort White because that's where my family came from. I mean, they were - they've been there 160 years - still there - some of them's that old, I think. But it's a it's a wonderful place.”

“I learned a lot in the last few months, and I think I speak for all the Commissioners with - we're thankful you're here and - and um - I honestly saw the Town as part of the County. Like, I didn't really, and I know… but I said - you know - they're the County really, and then I realized that y'all are, and - and I knew it, I just didn't really - you know - know it for sure that y'all are just like a city or a municipality.”

After more comments, Mr. Hollingsworth continued, “I know, Mr. Kirby wants to talk to you about the interlocals and all the other things that that y'all want and what you don't want, and I'm here to say that I want to go through them all – the utility, whether you want to do that or not, all that is up to you. If - if y'all have somethin’ that we do down there at the County or down in the Town of Fort White you don't want us to do, we don't have a problem not doin’ it.”

“It's just, you know, if you have an issue with somethin' you don't want us to do, that's up to you. It's up to you. It's -that's your decision. You can say yes or no, and - and - and - and I understand that there's been a lot of talk all through all over the place, but really and truly, we just want to do what y'all want to do.”

Asst. County Manager Kevin Kirby
Assistant County Manager Kevin Kirby didn't have everyone conviced with his 12th hour presentation.

Assistant County Manager / Public Works Director Kevin Kirby

Assistant County Manager / Public Works Director Kevin Kirby addressed the gathering, using a 12th hour prepared PowerPoint presentation.

Mr. Kirby’s new PowerPoint presentation was specific in the types of work the County did in Fort White.

While Mr. Kirby went back ten years, speaking with folk that have been around since the 90s, the County had been taking care of issues in Fort White for some time before Mr. Kirby came on board for the County.

Mr. Kirby, in his slide presentation, claimed the County generated 1,363 work orders for facilities maintenance.

Mr. Kirby failed to break out the County owned facilities in Fort White, which the County always kept up: library, fire station, senior services building, community center, and Clint Pitman's recreational sports fields.

Connie Brecheen Fort White Town Manager
Once again, the County was negligent in posting backup or supporting information. The County's agenda item was "Interlocal Agreements" between the Town and County. Not only didn't it post the interlocal agreements along with the agenda material, it didn't bring them to the meeting. The only people prepared at the meeting were Town Clerk Connie Brecheen, who had the agreements with her at the meeting and Town Council Lindsey Lander.

Of the 1,363 facilities maintenance work orders mentioned by Mr. Kirby, neither he nor any of the commissioners said that the facilities maintained in Fort White are County owned facilities. If the County maintained any Fort White facilities, Mr. Kirby was silent.

Mr. Kirby also pointed out that the County graded four dirt roads in Fort White. Specifically, "Approx. 1 mile of dirt roads between Centerville, Old Wire, Jordan, and Cook are graded once every two weeks.”

The County is grading one mile of County roads in Fort White, split between four County roads, or about a quarter of a mile for each road.

After the meeting, when the topic of road grading came up, Fort White Mayor Ronnie Frazier smiled and told your reporter, "The County is down there with their road graders anyway grading their roads. It is just a little piece of each."

Mr. Kirby's records also pointed out that the County picked up four dead animals over ten years, or four-tenths of an animal amortized over time.

One Town Council member questioned the work order for the ice machine. It turned out the ice machine was in the County owned community center.

The County claimed the point of the work order exercise was to show that the County was doing work in Fort White. It was more: "See what we have done for you lately?"

The County said moving forward, it will need interlocal agreements for its work in Fort White. The County should have had them before as protection for the Town and the County. This is something that County Attorney Joel Foreman and former Town Attorney Fred Koberlein had overlooked.

Town Attorney Lindsey Lander listens to the County.
Town Attorney Lindsey Lander listens to the County.

An omnibus interlocal between the Town and County will cure the interlocal issue, and it was agreed that the attorneys will cure the problem, presumably along the lines of Commissioner Hollingsworth’s comments at the beginning of the meeting, “Really and truly, we just want to do what y'all want to do.”

Mayor Frazier said, “I’m speaking for myself, but I say leave the interlocals like they are.”

Mayor Frazier continued, "As far as the Ichetucknee Water Utility Authority, I think it's a great thing. But we still need to talk about it. There is a lot of risk on our side if we do decide to do this… That’s why I kinda wanted to have the meeting in Fort White so some of the residents could get up and speak and center their thoughts on it.”

Utilities: Ichetucknee Water Utility Authority

Approximately forty-five minutes after the meeting was gaveled to order, County Manager David Kraus brought up agenda item two, Ichetucknee Water Utility Authority.

The County's legal Utility Consultant, Grady Williams, appeared at the meeting remotely through a speaker (the thing that is in a radio) placed in the middle of the room. Attorney Williams was attending a conference in Disney World and was unable to appear in person.

The Ichetucknee Water Utility Authority is misnamed and should be the water/wastewater utility authority. That is what the Authority is proposed to do, and the name presently proposed is misleading.

The County 5 has never publically discussed the proposed agreement.

Initially, the agreement had the County and the Town appointing two members each to the Authority Board. The County members had to be residents of the County. The Town members would have to be residents of the Town.

The members would then independently approve the fifth member.

Someone in the County didn’t like that arrangement, and the draft agreement was changed. The County would appoint three members, and its partner, the Town of Fort White, would appoint two members.

Then, the agreement was changed again. While the board was still to be comprised of five members, the number of members appointed by each governing body was left blank.

All verbiage of the Utility Authority members appointing the fifth member of the Authority disappeared. The latest draft of the agreement was not a strike-through and addition agreement so that the changes would be visible; all the old verbiage just disappeared (as in ‘up in smoke’).

All the refried facets of the Authority (as of November 1) appear in the November 1 draft agreement. The County did not post the agreement with the agenda or have a copy at the meeting.

County 5 - Ft. White Pow Wow arose curiosity
County Utility Consultant Grady Williams appeared at the meeting via a speaker in the center of the room. +++ enlarge - click image

Chairman Ford Introduces County Special Utility Counsel Grady Williams

County Chair Rocky Ford introduced Grady Williams. Mr. Ford said, "Grady is the attorney; well, him and Staz [Staz Guntek – County Special Projects Manager] worked on it [the agreement] together. They have written up this utility agreement for the Town and the County. He's done several of these utilities in the past."

Attorney Williams corrected Mr. Ford, “My primary experience is not going around the state starting these. My primary experience in this area has been working for Clay County Utility Authority since they became an independent special district.”

For almost an hour, discussion ensued regarding the proposed Authority. Commissioner Hollingsworth weighed in, along with Commissioner Ford. NFPS's Brian Roche could not explain why a brand new wastewater facility set to be operational in 2024 in Fort White, paid for by Florida's taxpayers (a state grant) with all new equipment and all new sewer lines, would be operating at a $120,000 yearly loss the day it opened.

Attorney Williams told the gathering before signing off to rejoin his meeting, “You've got to support the Authority getting started. Achieving a sustainable level… I think we are going to do pretty good here after five or ten years. I think Brian [Brian Roche, the NFPS engineer] wants to say it is going to be longer than that… It's going to be easier to plan that, design it, finance it, build it, maintain it if we pool resources then if we tried to do it each on our own.”

Fort White Mayor Ronnie Frazier
Fort White Mayor Ronnie Frazier makes a point during the meeting.

Chairman Ford, NFPS, the Utility Consortium

There was a pregnant silence after Attorney Williams' remarks. Chairman Ford brought up the proposed utility consortium, which was hatched by NFPS. NFPS is the engineering consultant for Columbia and Hamilton County, and also the engineer for Rocky Ford’s Gwynn Farms subdivision in Fort White.

Mr. Ford said, “So, for example, what we are lookin' at now with Suwannee County and Hamilton County, and Baker County is involved, but Baker County has no water and sewer right now. So what we're lookin' at right now with Suwannee and Hamilton is doin' a operational and maintenance utility with them right now. So basically, all three counties will pay into the utility for operation and maintenance. You have one operator operate all the plants in Suwannee County, Columbia County, and Hamilton County. So, each County will figure their percentage of what it's costin' to maintain and operate their utilities. There would [be] one utility for all three counties…. We can pool our resources and save each county money because Suwannee County is in the same boat we are. They're just gettin’ started in utilities. Hamilton County is just gettin’ started in utilities.”

Commissioner Hollingsworth said he understood.

Commissioner Williams explained the alternative to the Town Council, “And here’s the alternative. If you guys don't want to be part of a authority, we’ll just run water lines to Fort White and put a meter at the end of it. And then, you only just buy water from us.”

Commissioner Hollingsworth added, “We’ll still get you good water and everything you need.”

Commissioner Williams said, "And then you can charge what you want to for it.”

Fort White Councilman Travis King
Town Councilman Travis King asked the last question of the evening.

Eighteen minutes later, as the meeting came to a close, Town Councilman Travis King spoke up. "I've got a question for y'all while we are all here. So with the water authority -if we agree we don't agree, are we concerned about these interlocals goin’ away – between the Town?

(All the County 5 spoke over each other, except for Everett Phillips) Commissioner Williams's 40-plus years of legislative experience enabled him to have his voice win out.

Commissioner Williams said, "That don't have anything to do -- to do with the Authority.

Murphy:  Never has been.

The meeting adjourned.

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