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Lake City & Columbia County: Finally, On the Cusp of Getting Their Utility Act Together

Photo of Todd Sampson, left, and Rocky Ford, right with the caption: Sampson - Ford: The Beginning of a New Era?

Lake City, Columbia County, FL – Thursday evening's Utility Sub-Committee meeting brought out many of the movers and shakers of Lake City – Columbia County. After years of bickering, territorial disputes, and myopia, it appears that the City and County are ready to begin talking seriously about the utility future of Lake City – Columbia County.

Background: Lake City Utilities

For decades, Lake City was the utility provider for Lake City and the close-by areas in Columbia County.

In 2008, after over a year of negotiations between Councilman George Ward and Commissioner Dewey Weaver, the City and County were on the verge of taking steps to form a regional utility. Veteran County Manager Dale Williams blew up the deal. It has never been clear why, or which of the then County 5 were involved in the backroom decision to do the kibosh.

Lake City, City Councilman Chris Greene
Chris Greene Chaired the meeting, continuing the policy of Lake City which gives everyone the opportunity to be heard.

During the past two years, there has been economic development in the County. Utilities have become a critical issue for continued growth and economic development.

Two years ago, Rocky Ford was elected to the County 5. A successful, self-made independent businessman with no political experience, he has brought a fresh outlook to the County 5.

In the last election cycle, Todd Sampson was elected to the Lake City, City Council. He is also an independent, self-made businessman with no political experience and no political baggage.

Coincidentally, neither of these men were endorsed by the County's mainstream good ole' boy print media, the Lake City Reporter.

The Utility Committee Meeting: Filled With Surprises

The City Utility Committee's composition was problematic when the Mayor and City Manager recently decided on its composition. The County was not given any seats; the City tried to fix it by making another sub-committee of Commissioners and Council members; the County balked, wanting a seat at the table.

At the last meeting of the County 5, the County rejected the idea of the separate Committee.

At yesterday's meeting, the County was represented by Commissioner Ford, County Manager Krause, and Economic Development Director Glenn Hunter.

County 5 member Tim Murphy told your reporter he wanted to be there but was tied up at another meeting.

Utility Committee Chairman Councilman Chris Greene invited Commissioner Ford to speak.

Rocky Ford, Columbia County, County Commissioner
Commissioner Rocky Ford.

Commissioner Ford came prepared for business and got right to it. He told the Committee: "I'm here representin' the board of County Commissioners... We'd like to have one Committee... I would like to see two commissioners, two City councilmen, county manager, city manager, and engineers... We should have a five-year goal. We form a regional utility at that point... the County really wants to work with the City... We think we should be equal partners... The only way for the County to put funding in the utility is through a regional utility... I think a regional utility is the answer to all of our problems."

Chairman Greene said that he wanted to give the City Council the opportunity "to take stock" of his comments.

Mayor Witt asked, "We already have a utility system that is owned by the City and financed by the City. Would you want to take over that debt?"

Commissioner Ford, after mentioning that both the County and City utility assets would have to be appraised, said, "That would have to be decided when forming the utility," adding, "Definitely, the City would be reimbursed for what equity they have in the utility."

Commissioner Ford said this would "take the politics out of the utilities."

There was a discussion about water flows and comments by City Consulting Engineer Jamie Bell, County Manager Kraus, and City Water Director Mike Osborne.

Councilman Sampson: Presents His Three Point Plan

City Councilman Todd Sampson
Councilman Todd Sampson

Chairman Greene gave Mr. Sampson the floor.

Mr. Sampson began by saying, "Rocky [Ford] was reading my mind a little bit."

Mr. Sampson came prepared with a written statement, which he provided to the City Clerk after the meeting.

Mr. Sampson began, "It is obvious that over the past couple of years, the City and the County have been at loggerheads regarding providing utilities in and around Lake City and Columbia County... For years, Columbia County has said it doesn't want to be in the utility business. Recently, it has said that it does, and I believe the County means business. Listening to the County, it is difficult not to believe that Lake City has been instrumental in this change of County direction. Dueling utilities benefits neither the City nor the County. As this is a recent phenomenon, it is time to nip this in the bud."

After a few more comments, Mr. Sampson made a motion, "The utility committee recommends to the City Council that the City is dedicated to providing utilities for Lake City and all of Columbia County."

Mayor Witt seconded the motion, and it passed unanimously.

The Utility Committee: Recognizing it needs to change

Mr. Sampson's second motion: "The Utility Committee be reconstituted with the following as voting members: 2 City Councilmen, 2 County Commissioners, the City Manager, the County Manager, the City Utility Director, and the County Economic Development Director."

Daniel Sweat, Lack City Assistant City Manager
Assistant City Manager Dan Sweat had folks guessing on his vote.

Mayor Witt seconded the motion. There was some discussion. Chairman Greene was a little antsy over this.

Mr. Sampson said, "I think if you have co-equal representation - I think we are going to get a lot more buy-in."

None of the City Utility employees voted for the change. There was drama when Assistant City Manager Sweat took a while to think about his vote. He voted for the motion, as did Chairman Greene. The motion passed 6-4.

Commissioner Ford said, "I do intend to bring this before my board Thursday night."

Motion Number Three: Working Together to Develop a Plan

Mr. Sampson's third proposition was simple: "A motion stating that the City and County will work together to develop a five-year strategic plan for countywide utilities."

The motion passed with only one nay, that of Public Works Director Thomas Henry.

The three recommendations will go before the City Council.

For Now, Everyone Is Pointing in the Same Direction

Lake City Mayor, Steve Witt
Mayor Steve Witt is on-board for cooperation.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Mayor Witt said, "I think we made a lot of progress tonight. I think we are going to work it out with the County. We've got to keep working toward what's best for the community. I think we need to take a step at a time, and do it right."

After the meeting, City Manager Helfenberger said, "I think we made progress, and we have clear direction, which is critical moving forward."

Mr. Helfenberger continued, "I'm pleased with Councilman Sampson's efforts, and I am looking forward to working with the County on our mutual utility issues and encouraging economic development."

David Kraus, Columbia County, County Manager
County Manager David Kraus was optimistic after the meeting.

This morning, County Manager Kraus told your reporter, "This was an important milestone for City-County relations. We all have to work together. We are at a critical moment."

County 5 Chairman Rocky Ford had the last word, "I am happy with the results of the meeting and I think we have something we can build on. I can't see the County 5 turning this down."

Finally, Chairman Ford reflected the views of many, "I am looking forward to getting started and working with the City.

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