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Lake City Turns Back the Clock on Utility Cooperation – Digs In For a Utility War: Is it too late for cooperation?

Lake City Mayor Steven Witt with copy: Lake City Mayor Steven Witt. Will he be able to right a listing ship.
Columbia County Observer Photo

LAKE CITY, COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – The age old utility war between Columbia County and Lake City has reared it head once again. Recently, with the City and County huffing and puffing, the real issues for the tax payers are being obscured by chest beating and trash talk. If the leaders don’t sit down and resolve their issues soon, it is going to get expensive for everyone in the County.


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.

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.

On January 14, 2021, a month and a half ago, the City Utility Committee voted to include the County as voting members on its Utility Advisory Committee. City Councilman Todd Sampson said, “Dueling utilities benefits neither the City nor the County. As this is a recent phenomenon, it is time to nip this in the bud."

Councilman Sampson’s proposal was to reconstitute the Utility Advisory Committee with the following voting members: 2 City Councilmen, 2 County Commissioners, the City Manager, the County Manager, the City Utility Director, and the County Economic Development Director.

The City agreed and after the meeting the Mayor, City Manager, County Manager and County Commission Chairman Rocky Ford all voiced optimism. “I am looking forward to getting started and working with the City,” he said.

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

On January 21, 2021, Councilman Chris Greene came to the County 5 and for an hour debated The 5.

In spite of Councilman Greene’s negative energy, the County 5 voted unanimously to have County 5 Chairman Rocky Ford and Commissioner Tim Murphy represent the County on the City Utility Advisory Committee.

See: Lake City Vice Mayor Appears Before the County 5 to Discuss City Utility Policy & the City Budget: His Appearance Not Sanctioned by the City Council

Monday Night, March 1, 2021
The City Council Meets

While the City had a jam packed agenda, City utilities played a big part in the meeting.

Early on, engineer Jamie Bell of Jones Edmunds gave the City an update on various utility issues.

Councilman Sampson asked Ms. Bell about an application to modify the current City water use permit “to restore the lost availability” due to leaky pipes. The restorable loss is about a million gallons a day.

Ms. Bell said, “We have not been hired by the City to request an increase... However, I know we’re interested to get the allocation increase so that we can continue to serve the growing economic development areas."

Councilman Sampson responded, “It should be really easy, from talking to some people on the side, to go ahead and modify it [the permit] back to what it was."

For the next hour and a half the City then went on to other business, which included the passing of an ordinance, which established the Utility Advisory Committee members, who were “to be appointed by the mayor with the consent and approval by resolution of the city council.”

Finally, the last item on the evening’s agenda, item number 25, was the selection of the Utility Advisory Committee members.

This should have been a simple task. The County 5 had appointed c

Commissioners Rocky Ford and Tim Murphy to represent the County on the Committee on January 21. City Councilman Sampson and Greene were in attendance at the County that evening.

The County’s January 21 minutes are the following:

City Utility Committee Update: On January 14, the City Utility Committee met and revised their recommendation for a joint City/County Utility Committee consisting of two Commissioners, two City Council Members, the City Manager, the County Manager, the Economic Development Director and the City Utility Director. They also voted to recommend that the City and County work on a 5-year utility strategic plan and that the City provide utilities to all Columbia County. The Committee also voted to recommend a water extension study for the NFMIP.

Councilman Chris Greene addressed the Board as a private citizen.

Discussion ensued.

MOTION by Commissioner Witt to appoint Commissioners Ford and Murphy to the Utility Committee. SECOND by Commissioner Hollingsworth. The motion carried unanimously.

Nobody told the Mayor or the City Manager That the County had appointed two of its members to the City Advisory Committee

Mayor Witt told the Council, “My recommendation would be two members of the Council, the mayor as ex officio, utility director, outside business person, and I'd like to leave it open for the County to be on this board. I know they said they didn't want to be on an advisory board, but that's the only way they can serve… I’d like them to do it, because we need to work together.”

Councilman Sampson said, “I think it’s been made in no uncertain terms that they are not interested. They can always request that they be added. We can do it at any time. But I think they have to reach out to us now. We've reached out; we've asked; we went before them to ask; and they’re not interested in an advisory council… If you have read the County agenda there’s several things coming up that shows they are directly at odds with our best interests… We’ve got to start having meetings. We’ve got to start moving our utility board.”

Mr. Sampson also recommended putting the City's economic development director on the utility committee instead of the County's economic development director. The city has no economic development director and has never had one.

Mayor Witt asked, “Mr. Helfenberger, do you have any answer on whether they are interested?”

City Manager Helfenberger answered, “On what?”

Mayor Witt said, “On the County being on the utility board.”

City Manager Helfenberger answered, “You can wait and see what happens or you can take action.”

Mayor Witt said, “With Mr. Sampson's comments, I would change my recommendation to the other and leave it open for the County if they did show an interest. We could do it by resolution.” 

Councilman Greene said, “I would second Mr. Sampson's sentiments. I think that window is probably closed now… They have made it perfectly clear that they have no interest in being on our utility advisory committee… We can close that door so we can move on. We can’t delay on continuing growth. I didn't get -- I don't think any of us got elected -- to represent the Board of County Commissioners. We got elected to represent the citizens of Lake City. We need to move forward. We need economic development. We need to close the door here on membership so that we can get to work.”

Mayor Witt asked City Clerk Audrey Sikes for a rundown of the committee members.

She said, “I have two Councilmen, you serve ex officio, the utility department head, and the city manager.

Mr. Sampson said, “I make a motion.

Mr. Greene said, “I second.”

The City Council unanimously approved keeping the County Commissioners off the Utility Advisory Committee.


A review of the County minutes subsequent to Jan. 21 show that at no time did the County reject its motion to have Commissioners Ford and Murphy serve on the City Utility Advisory Committee.

Late yesterday, County Chairman Rocky Ford told your reporter, “We were waiting to hear from the City. We never withdrew. We were waiting for the City to schedule the meeting.”

Both City Manager Helfenberger and Mayor Witt told the Observer that they didn't know the County had appointed Commissioners Ford and Murphy to the committee.

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