Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

Real news for working families.

Lake City News

After squandering millions
Columbia County has a map
(The city meeting)
(go to the county meeting)

The Sept.14 Lake City utility committee ran smoothly, quietly and professionally. Everyone from the city knew what they were talking about. City Manager, Wendell Johnson (blue shirt and tie) addresses County Com DuPree with his reservations about running the county utility at Ellisville. The entire city council attended this important meeting.

The City of Lake City has been in the utility business for a hundred years. There have been some bumps, big bumps, along the way. The city utility is now run and managed by a team of professionals and soon, along with its world class water plant, will also have a state of the art and up to date sewage treatment plant.

Is the city making everybody happy – certainly not, but unlike in the county, you can come to the city and ask all the questions you want. The city extends this right to the same two county commissioners, DuPree and Bailey, who have taken this right away from all the citizens of Columbia County and that includes the City Council members.

Vice Mayor and Utility Committee Chairman George Ward, in words echoed by Councilman Eugene Jefferson told the Observer, "We want to answer everybody's questions. I have never heard of the council denying anybody the right to ask a question. We are not interested in giving the people time limits. We are interested in giving the people answers."

At the City Utility Sub Committee meeting held on September 14th, after the presentation of the city's new rate study, a discussion ensued regarding the city-county utility relationship, both in Ellisville and in the future.

Can the county give us a number?

Mr. Ward cut right to the chase and addressed the county, "You have to have a feel for the amount of gallonage you're talking about. Can the county give us a number there?

Commissioner DuPree answered, "We're new to it. I know one of the numbers I heard was seven hundred and fifty thousand gallons."

Mr. Ward followed up, "Do you have a potential customer base you're serving?"

Com DuPree's answer left everyone slack jawed, "Well, Columbia County and the exchanges."

Non-pulsed, the always polite Mr. Ward said, "You all need to get back to us and give us some idea on what kind of capacity you would want."

Utility Director Dave Clanton explained that the city is working on a thousand per gallon cost.

Com DuPree said, "Probably it would be a good idea if we could figure out how to get the two utility committees together. I guess to start a dialogue about where we want to go ..."

City Manager Wendell Johnson summarized what he has been saying at the other county-city meetings:

I asked Dale (CM Dale Williams) to provide – what did he want? Somebody's got to sit down and determine the amount of capacity you want to acquire from the city.  The operational concept .... these are elements that have to be considered.

County sub-committee chairman DuPree responded to the City Manager:

Well, you know what might be then is that maybe what we need to talk about our utility meetin is maybe contractin with you all about helping us determine what our needs are, cause it sounds to me like what you need to know from us what do we wanna do and -- we're like to go wearin diapers – and so you know – we don' have -- we don't have staff that helps us figure out how to get where we wanna go – so it could be that that's the next step that we need to take and it would make sense to me that we need to try to use don't know how expensive ya all are – but – at least try to use who ya all usin at least ~unintelligible~ familiar with your system ... ~unintelligible~.

Water Director Steve Roberts stepped in, "One big help would be if you've got plots or maps showing the extension areas that you want to take water to."

Commissioner DuPree laughed and then told Director Roberts, "I've got a map of Columbia County man."

The county has sabotaged all efforts toward a regional utility.

For years the county has sabotaged every effort as progress was made toward the concept of a regional utility and cooperation. The new City Manager does his homework and is asking all the right questions. When the topic changed to the city running the Ellisville Utility Project for the county, there was a palpable silence. Finally, City Manager Johnson spoke:

Contract operations. This is the same thing I've said in the county meetings. It is something I am not disposed to. I can only say that it's different. It's something that I've never experienced as far as the city operating the utility system for the county. A lot of information would have to be provided... There are a lot of unknowns... It sounds logical, but this kind of operation is not based on logic. It's based on the reality of an operational relationship whereby everybody benefits. That's something this go-around -- I'm just not comfortable with.

The city's long time consulting utility engineer Henry Sheldon, who is not known for being bashful, came right to the point:

We never really thought of owning or operating a satellite water system, because our well field and our plant is big enough for the whole county. We can pump water to Live Oak and to High Springs...  Last week we turned off the pumps for a plant that we could never meet water quality. We don't want to get back into that business... If there is a plant that is out there with a well that is pumping from a ground water that could be contaminated ... we can't do it.

After a pause Com DuPree spoke, "Sounds a lot like a no to me."

Water Director Roberts:    I know the water in that area. It's full of organics. I don't know if you all did a study on the water to see what happened when you hit it with chlorine and what kind of by product you're left with.

Commissioner DuPree answered Mr. Roberts explaining what he thought went wrong:  

I understand all the processes that should happen when you're gonna put in a water system and a sewer system. I wasn't on the Board of County Commissioners when all this happened. All them steps we're talkin about right now – ain't happened... 

I would certainly understand your position to say I don't want no part of it because you're all a bunch of idiots and did it backwards and we don't want to have your liability. I understand that. I just need to know that.

The test well results have been kept a secret for almost two years.

The Observer:         Does anybody even know if they drilled any test wells at Ellisville?

Com. DuPree:         They did.

The Observer:         How did the water come out?

Com. DuPree:         Well they drilled the wells.

Director Roberts:    I've never seen any data.

The Observer:         Do you have any data?

Com Bailey:  Eutaw has. [Eutaw Utilities – the county consultants]

The Observer:     Pardon me?

Com Bailey:  The engineer's have it.

The Observer:     Does the county have [it]? They are in Tallahassee.

Com Bailey:  I think they that if they do or if they don't.

The Observer:         OK

Com DuPree:           It's just – you know it is what it is. It's what we got.

Commissioner DuPree hit the nail right on the head. "It's what we got."

Unfortunately the "we" are all the working families of Columbia County and the mess at Ellisville is just coming into the sunlight, as the squandering of county money, state money and now federal stimulus money continues without accountability on this inept project.