Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

Real news for working families.  An online news service

Lake City News

Lake City Not the Regional Utility Anymore: It's Now Up To the City Council Decide What It Wants the Utility to Be - Time Is Running Out

The cover image from City Assistant Manager Daniel Sweat's recent City Utility PowerPoint. Mr. Sweat's presentation was universally dismissed as having any value moving forward. Nobody knew what the bubbles in the image represented.

Lake City, Columbia County, FL – Last Tuesday's Lake City Utility Committee meeting lasted two and a half hours. Lake City's new Assistant City Manager Daniel Sweat, a man with neither water nor wastewater background, nor any institutional knowledge of Lake City utilities, announced that the City Utility is not interested in being Columbia County's regional utility provider.

Background: The Plum Creek - Weyerhaeuser Relationship With Columbia County - Lake City Is Not Pretty

The North Florida Mega Industrial Park [Plum Creek] has been on the drawing board since 2006. As reported earlier, Plum Creek and now Weyerhaeuser didn't want to pay for the improvements to its site in the way of roads or utilities. See: Columbia County Economic Development, Weyerhaeuser-Plum Creek Mega Industrial Site: 14 Years Later – Still No Utility Plan.

There was a time when the Lake City Utility was going to be the utility for all of Columbia County. The Price Creek water plant was designed with this in mind. The upgrading of the City's wastewater plants and the water re-use plant were also part of this plan.

Recently, poor to no planning by the City Utility and the inability of the City to devise any utility plan has the folks at the County, who for the past 15 years have said they don't want to be in the utility business, now saying they are going into the utility business.

The frustration with Lake City is evident when anyone from the County talks about the City Utility. Folks from the County say that the City would have done nothing with its utilities for the past two to three years if it wasn't for the County's urging and grant-writing.

Insiders at the City had said the City Manager was interested in doing what the County wants rather than coming up with a plan.

After almost two-and-a-half years on the job, City Manager Helfenberger has the City working on a utility master plan.

Realizing the City's dire straits, the Suwannee River Water Management District is funding half the study's cost.

In an insider's deal, the County has hired Government Services Group (GSG), the folks involved in the North Florida Broadband Authority debacle, to do a utility study for the County. The City is not involved.

Last Tuesday at the City
Confusion and A Lack of Leadership

Lake City's new Assistant City Manager Daniel Sweat, in his 60 days at Lake City, has developed the reputation as a micro-manager.

Assistant City Manager Daniel Sweat did not pay attention to the microphone, making much of his commentary unintelligible.   Zoom Screenshot.

After two years, the City Utility Advisory Committee met last Tuesday.

City Manager Helfenberger was absent. No announcement was made regarding his whereabouts.

Assistant City Manager Sweat represented the City's management at the meeting.

Mr. Sweat provided no supporting information to the Committee members and spent his time reading from a note pad. His resume claims he is an expert in report writing.

Newly elected City Councilman Todd Sampson complained about the lack of pre-meeting information.

Lake City Utilities provides water (the drinking kind), wastewater (sewer), stormwater control, and natural gas. The Utility also must plan for and do recharging of the aquifer.

The requirements for the Assistant City Manager position, drawn up by City Manager Joe Helfenberger, required the following:

The ideal candidate will have experience in grant writing, economic development, and experience in the operation and management of utility systems to include, natural gas, water and wastewater, and stormwater. The ideal candidate must possess excellent written and verbal communication skills; possess strong fiscal management skills; and the ability to foster good intergovernmental relationships and a history of good community relations.

Mr. Sweat came to Lake City by way of the Navy, where he was a ship's nuclear power plant operator. From the Navy, he went on to have a career with the Gainesville Regional Utility (GRU), where he worked at the Deerhaven electric generating facility, concluding his career as the generating facility "Production Manager."

While a power plant uses water and natural gas, this experience is not "experience in grant writing, economic development, and experience in the operation and management of utility systems to include, natural gas, water and wastewater, and stormwater."

In 2020, Mr. Sweat received a BA in psychology from St. Leo University.

In his introductory letter to the City, Mr. Sweat wrote that he was “an adept manager,” with a “well-rounded background in report generation," and has a "focused attention to detail and high accuracy.”

One of Mr. Sweat's assigned responsibilities is the Utility Department and Utility Director Paul Dyal's direct supervision.

Mr. Sweats' opening remarks at the Utility Advisory Committee meeting were indicative of the rest of the evening: "We're gonna' give you a lot of information on the North Florida Mega Industrial Park. These [sic] are information based on information we been given in reference to the Park and these expectations."

He continued, "In order to give you more precise cost, time, and materials, the City is gonna' require hard numbers for the amount of water, sewage, (unintelligible) to adequately construct and provide infrastructure. In order for the City Utility Department to make an exact determination of utilities, it's gonna' be imperative that the City and the County develop a master plan."

Mr. Sweat spoke about providing untreated water to Plum Creek. The City's Price Creek Water Plant is two miles away.

Mr. Sweat claimed that the route to Price Creek was four miles. He provided no drawings or maps. He offered no charts or anything in writing to the Committee.

Mr. Sweat said that the line would cost about $1.6 mil to run from the Price Creek Water Plant to Plum Creek, but he didn't say where the line would end up.

He said, "That is just in parts."

This conflicts with info already obtained and ignored by the City, which has the water line's parts at approximately $650,000. A City source said the City Utility Department could mostly install the line with a tap at the Plum Creek Industrial Park.

Mr. Sweat advised that the City "could not put the line in when we don't know how much is needed."

One high ranking County official, off the record, laughed at Mr. Sweats' remarks, saying, "That's what contracts are for."

Sweat explained that the County "is already applying for a permit for 2,000,000 gallons [a day]." He said this was raw water.

The can't-do attitude of the City was the hallmark of the meeting.

Left to right: Daniel Sweat, Councilman Sampson, Councilman Greene, Mayor Witt.  Zoom screenshot.

Mr. Sweat did not go into why the City has not been using its re-use plant, which was built with millions of taxpayer-funded grant money.

The City is well aware that the Water Management District is furious that this plant is not up and running, and colors the City's treatment by the District.

The water re-use plant has been falling into disrepair. The City has come up with nothing but excuses not to put the plant online.

City Manager Helfenberger has been well aware of these issues for some time and has done nothing to address them. He concluded that the City needs a “Utility Master Plan.”

Still an Issue for Lake City
Being Understood in the Virtual World

Mr. Sweat refused to move his microphone close and speak into it. Many of his most important comments were unintelligible.

Mayor Witt was also mostly unintelligible.

People speaking from the audience were very unintelligible.

Not being heard at a public meeting is a clear violation of Florida's Sunshine Law.

In Lake City, some public officials are oblivious of the need to be heard and understood.

City Attorney Fred Koberlein, for the first few months of virtual meetings, sounded like he had his head in the toilet bowl.

For $160 hr, he could have done better and set the bar higher for the City.

During the meeting,  Water Plant Operator Mike Osborne said the City was pumping 170,000 gallons of treated water a week on the ground. This amount does not include County water main flushing.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) turned down a grant to fund the County pumping its water back into the aquifer.

City Councilman Greene asked Mr. Sweat if he had something to recommend to the City Council. The purpose of the Committee is to make recommendations.

Mr. Sweat said, "

 Based on the information we've given today, I think the City needs to determine whether or not our time, efforts, and resources are better spent on a shovel ready project such as Bell Road versus the North Florida Mega Industrial Park. You're talking about being ready to service an industry of the Industrial Park, a customer, for the short time, versus, we're still not sure of what we need to do out there at the North Florida Mega Park. We know they need water, they need sewer service, but can we supply it for the length of the lifetime (unintelligible)?

I don't think we can. We got to identify what we do first -- supply first." Mr. Sweat continued, "If I was to make a recommendation (unintelligible)."

There was conversation among the Committee members.

Once again, Mayor Witt was mostly unintelligible.

In response to the Mayor, Mr. Greene said, "That seems to be what I've heard as well. Mr. Greene was a few feet from the Mayor.

Mr. Sampson asked Mr. Sweat for clarification.

Commissioner Tim Murphy, Interim County Manager David Kraus, and Glenn Hunter were County officials at the Utility Committee meeting. Sitting with mask and laptop, City Atty Fred Koberlein. Zoom screenshot.

Mr. Sweat responded, "Right now, we are not able to provide (unintelligible) they need 20 years down the road. We can supply them. We can supply them with gas, sewage, and water at this time. (Unintelligible) absolutely not."

Mr. Sampson said: That's a definite timeframe, all right.

Mr. Sweat's follow up remarks were completely unintelligible.

Mr. Sampson followed up, "So, we're saying because we didn't plan ahead and get that permit previously; because we didn't know the flows and the need. We have the ability to provide it if we know it's needed. I just want to clarify because that is not what I heard."

Mayor Witt said something completely unintelligible.


The Committee had nothing in the way of recommendations to the City Council.

For the past two and a half years, the City, which at one time was considered to be the regional utility for Columbia County and Lake City, has been the can't-do utility.

Utility Director Paul Dyal says, 'You give us the money, and we can do it.'

The County says, 'We get you grants and do the heavy lifting, and you still can't do it.'

It is now up to the City Council to decide what it wants its utility to be, and it doesn't have a lot of time.

Comments  (to add a comment go here

This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

Meeting Calendar
No need to be confused - Find links to agendas and where your participation is welcome.

Make a comment • click here •
All comments are displayed at the end of the article and are moderated.