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Columbia County Observer

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Lake City/County News

Jack Berry Hwy Moves to Lake City, City Has No Plan or Funding Plan, Bogus Info Sent to FDOT

COLUMBIA COUNTY/LAKE CITY, FL – On Tuesday, February 21, the Lake City, City Council met. On its docket was an item regarding the Jack Berry Hwy, technically known by the state as Lake Shore Boulevard, or the East Access Road. Beginning in 2012, the project was driven quickly into the shadows by City Manager Wendell Johnson, who claimed that if your reporter attended the meetings they wouldn't go smoothly. County Commissioner Ronald Williams also worked to keep these meetings in the dark, never reporting back to the County Commission.

Historic Jack Berry Hwy Historical Highpoints

This graphic is from a spreadsheet provided by the Governor's office early in 2016 detailing legislative appropriations. This item details Rep. Porter's request for the Lake Shore Boulevard Access Road, known as the Jack Berry Hwy. Washington Street is definitely part of the proposal.

In 1977 the issue of east side access to Lake Shore Hospital came up. The Fed and the State DOT's held public hearings. The project never materialized.

In 2010, Lake Shore Hospital was leased to a private corporation, Community Health Systems (CHS). They had a triple net lease and the hospital was now generating property taxes to the County, City, and the Authority.

In 2012, the issue of emergency room access began circulating between the Lake Shore Hospital Authority, Lake City, and Columbia County. It was never clear how it bubbled to the surface.

There is no record of the Hospital ever complaining about ambulance access.

A plan to set aside the property taxes paid by Lake Shore Hospital to fund the access road was hatched. Both the County and the Authority agreed to set aside their portion of hospital taxes to fund the road improvement by setting up special funds in which they were to deposit the tax money.

The County 5 approved the set-aside, but there was no record of the funds being established in a special account. According to County Manager Ben Scott, he spoke with former County Manager Dale Williams about the special road fund and it was explained that when it became clear the City was not going to set up its account for the tax-road fund, the County never set up the account and didn't say anything more about it.

Hosp Auth Manager Berry was involved in the road project.

On May 14, 2012, the Hospital Authority Board voted to set aside $22,878 for the tax-road fund. The 2012 Authority tentative budget showed the $22k being set aside. However, by the time the Authority's final budget was approved, the money dropped out of the budget. There is no explanation for this in the minutes of the Authority, nor was it discussed.

Back room deals and fake facts
A way of life in Columbia County

In 2012, 13, 14, and 15 the City Council neither approved the tax funding plan, nor did the City Council approve the road – the planning or the concept. The records of Lake City were searched by City Clerk's on-board document archiving system and nothing could be found in any of the City's minutes for those years in which the road project was referenced.

In 2013, 14, and 15, the County Manager(s), the City Manager, and Mayor sent letters to Representative Elizabeth Porter claiming that the County and the City agreed there was a need to improve emergency room access at Lake Shore Hospital. In fact, there is nothing in either board's minutes that this was approved by those public bodies, because it wasn't.

Lake City Last Tuesday
Jack Berry Hwy Still Floating in Space

During last Tuesday's February 21 City Council meeting, Lake City property owner Barbara Lemley asked the City Council where it would put the Jack Berry Hwy if it took over the project from the County.

City Manager Johnson answered, "I can't answer that question. I don't know where the road is going to go. That's why it's on the agenda tonight? I wish I could answer it, but I can't. That's why we're going to hire an engineer, possibly."

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) is Florida's road experts. After meeting with Jack Berry, the City Manager, and the County Manager in 2016, FDOT studied the project and presented a plan and an alternate plan for placement of the road.

Ms. Lemley followed up, "If the road is designed, what will be the funding source?"

City Manager Johnson answered, "I can't answer that question. It hasn't been determined yet – TBD."

Councilman Ward – He thought there was a design
"Put the road where it's been designed to go"

The MOU approved by the County 5 on February 2 was for the design of the road, which The 5 did not reject.

City Councilman George Ward told the Council, "For years, every ambulance that came through town, or came to Lake Shore Hospital, came down 90 and Marion Street, and screamed up the street and almost ran over people on the turn. We need to reroute. We've already helped with some of that, but the ones coming in from the east of town, they need to have another route. That's the point of having the road built and put the road where it's been designed to go."

City Manager Johnson expanded on the road placement, "There's a lot of unanswered questions. $410,000 has been earmarked by a legislative appropriation to make those determinations."

The letters of the County and the City have the proposed road running between U.S. 90 and Washington Street.

Representative Porter's legislative request also had the road running between Washington Street and U.S. 90.

The Observer Asks a Question
"Are you going back to square one?"

Your reporter said, "The legislation shows that that road is for an improvement to Washington Street. That's what was approved. This actually started in 2012. I don't think there is any dispute about that. The Department of Transportation came up with a plan. The DOT has the road going someplace other than was originally designed by the Lake Shore Hospital Authority, Columbia County, and Lake City. My question is for $410,000 are you guys going back to square one?"

City Manager Johnson responded, "I don't understand what kind of question that is. You need to be talking to the DOT about the $410,000 -- what it's for... You are gettin' way ahead of us on this stuff."

The record shows that Representative Porter's appropriation request was broken out this way: Engineering - $220,000, Right-of-Way acquisition -- $190,000: Construction - $1,690,000: Total - $2,100,000. (These figures are directly from Rep. Porter's legislative monetary request).

County 5 Has Not Released the Project

The Columbia County 5 from left to right: Commissioners Ronald Williams; Rusty DePratter; Bucky Nash; Everett Phillips; Tim Murphy

On February 2, 2018, the County 5 approved a $410,000 legislative appropriation facilitated through the FDOT. The 5 also approved a memorandum of understanding (MOU) which required the City's approval. The County did not require the Lake Shore Hospital Authority to approve anything. The County 5 has not rescinded its decision.

Lake City means the City Council. City Manager Johnson has not presented the MOU to the City Council.

On February 13, the Lake Shore Hospital Authority Board voted down the MOU approved by the County 5. It should have not made any difference, as the County 5 was awarded the appropriation and it did not require Lake Shore Hospital Authority approval.

Almost 5 decades ago the Florida Attorney warned against managers polling their boards.

Polling the Board is illegal.

On February 20, 2017, County Manager Ben Scott emailed City Manager Johnson, writing "The Board has no issues with the City administering the EDTF [Economic Development Transportation Fund - the same funds] grant from FDOT for the Lake Shore Access Road."

The County 5 has never turned down the Grant.

The FDOT prepared an agreement with Lake City to administer the design of the road.

Neither the FDOT nor Representative Porter has ever explained how the original $220,000 design fee was jacked up to $410,000.

Wendell Johnson and the City Council aren't asking questions.


Columbia County, Florida: the legend continues.

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