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Are the savings worth the price?

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By Jason Cason

For those of you that do not know me, I am 35 years old and have slept more nights of my life within the city limits of Williston than anywhere else.  I am the youngest son of Jake and Marion Cason.  I attended Little Friends nursery, Joyce Bullock Elementary, Williston Intermediate/Middle School, and I graduated from Williston High School in 1993.  I attended Flagler College, Santa Fe Community College, and graduated from the University of Florida in May of 1997.  I have lived in and around the city of Williston for most of my life.  I became a homeowner (and subsequently a taxpayer and utility customer) within the city limits in March of 2008.  My wife, Hallie Priest Cason, is a lifelong resident of the Williston area.   I am a member of the Williston Church of God.   I work at Perkins State Bank.  I am a past president and charter member of the Rotary Club of Williston.  I am the treasurer of the Williston FFA Alumni Association.  
I say all of that to say this:  I have a VESTED interest in this community and I have a STRONG concern for the current direction of OUR city.  In talking with other city residents, I have come to feel that my interest and concern are shared by many.  
I congratulate the city council and Mr. Collins for the forward progress that has been made in improving our city financially.  I am a firm believer that change is good.  Savings are good.  Credit where credit is due – is good.  BUT – if change, savings, and credit alienate the very public that was to benefit, then has it all really been good?  And when I dig deeper into the accomplishments of the council and Mr. Collins, I begin to determine that maybe we’re handing out pats-on-the-back for normal, routine actions.  
Take for instance the claim that Debra Jones made in her recent Pioneer Column:  “I’m proud to say that the city was presented with a balanced budget at our first budget hearing this year,” wrote Mrs. Jones.  By law, no local governmental entity can operate under a budget that IS NOT balanced.  The fact that Mr. Collins presented a balanced budget suggests only that he knows the law’s requirements.  That action, in itself, shouldn’t be awe-inspiring.  My question is this:  In how much detail did the council dig into the budget?  It seems to me that if the budget was balanced in such short order, then surely they could have squeezed some more savings.  That is merely speculation on my behalf.
Mrs. Jones pointed out in that same column that the 2009-2010 budget was reduced approximately $505,000.  Then she pointed out that the 2009/2010 city property taxes were reduced by lowering the millage rate.  Again, keeping in mind that the budget must be balanced, if you reduce the city’s income, you MUST reduce the city’s expenses.  There is, of course, the ability to use cash reserves to balance the budget.  Mrs. Jones had already, however, pointed out that the city had begun “…actually putting money back into that rainy day fund.”  OK– look at the balanced budget thing again:  If the budget was balanced by putting funds into the excess reserve, then I can only surmise that there was income budgeted in excess of expenses.  As much as I agree that reserves are needed, the city is not a private entity with the goal of making money each year.  And at a time of depressed real estate values, escalating energy prices, and overall economic downturn, is NOW the time to build reserves?  Should reserves for the city be built on receipts from its residents when the residents themselves are not able to build any personal reserves at this time?
I guess I must have a different opinion of what a rainy day fund should be used for.   I have already said that I believe cash reserves are necessary.  The reserves should be used when factors dictate that the cost of operations exceed available funds from normal income sources.  Have the past few years not been a time of economic recession and real estate crisis?  It is suggested that the council now disagrees with the past use of cash reserves.  Was it not this same group of councilmen and councilwoman that were making decisions on our behalf when the reserves were used?
It appears, also, that our council decided that a measure to reduce cost was to rid the city of its attorney.  More so than I, Mr. Fugate is a vested member of this community.  He lives here and has raised his family here.  He is qualified.  I can only guess that the city may save 10 or even 20 thousand dollars by hiring a new attorney – and that’s just a pie-in-sky guess.  And for those savings, who will represent the city?  A cut-rate attorney from Gainesville that only knows Williston as the namesake of Williston Road?  An ambulance-chaser from Ocala that knows where we are because he drives through on his way to Tallahassee?  What is it that caused the disenchantment with Mr. Fugate and the services he provided?
  These questions can only be answered by the conscience of the Council and Mr. Collins.

The Council seems to have forgotten their duties and responsibilities as representatives of the constituency.   The Council is proud of all the “accomplishments” that have been advertised.  Is the Council also proud to have disconnected someone’s utilities on a Holiday Monday when the previous Saturday (offices closed) was the payment deadline to avoid cut-off?  Is the Council also proud to require someone to pay nearly twice their monthly income to re-instate service to a 22-year-long utility customer?  Is the Council proud to have a City Manager (Mr. Collins) that answered “Eight” when asked what the mark-up was on the cost of power only to agree with a later statement that it appeared the income from energy was 57% higher than the cost of energy?  Is the Council proud that there is a “Council Clown” that has evident (and arrogant) disregard for professionalism?  

Our City has lost touch with its residents.  There is no personal connection between the residents and City Hall.  There is no compassion within the confines of City Hall for the residents of this community.  It appears that the Council and the City Manager are all in one accord, regardless of the issue.  And why wouldn’t the Council support Mr. Collins?  He certainly makes their job easier.  My dad served the City on the Council for some 14 years.  I personally witnessed the passion and compassion by which he served.  I saw him come home angry/frustrated/happy/sad.  All of those emotions were because the decisions made were tough and his care was deep.  I can easily speculate that the duties of the Council must be much easier today when Mr. Collins appears to be making the difficult decisions and the Council is merely acting with a vote (or a phone poll).  The problem is:  The system of checks and balances has been diluted.  

My column could be summarized by this statement:  If in making huge strides with the City financially, the Council has managed to lose touch and anger the very residents that voted them into office, then has there been any real benefit?  Mrs. Jones, in as much as some of us find your “Williston Citizenship 101” useful, are you qualified to make a statement that “it’s definitely the right thing to do for our citizens?”  We are not indigents that need someone to make decisions FOR us.  We are your constituency that needs someone to respond to our needs with care and compassion and make decisions on our behalf.  Mr. Holcomb, is a vague motion for picnic tables an effort to show your compassion for our needs?  A need for a place to rest our laurels is not the subject of our discontent – unless, of course, a seat on the Council has become a place of laurel-resting.  We, as residents of the City, have an opportunity for our voices to be heard on March 1.  Let US be heard!

The opinions expressed in this column are the sole opinion of Jason Cason and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of his Church, Employer, or other Civic Organizations.