In a time of economic uncertainty and even gloom, status quo is best. That appears to be the conclusion reached by Williston's City Council when, at their Tuesday night meeting, they declined to take action on two major economic issues.
Months ago, the council commissioned Williston Fire and Rescue to conduct a study of the properties in the city limits and the percentage of services used in general categories like residential and business. The idea was to establish a baseline assessment fee to recover the cost of fire and rescue service though an assessment, which city residents have never before been asked to pay.
The study was completed and presented in detail to council at two recent meetings. At its July 22 meeting, council passed Resolution 2008-20, a Resolution of Intent to fund fire protection through a special assessment. It passed council 4-1, with President Debra Jones dissenting until she "saw the numbers." This past Tuesday evening, council shelved the matter for this year.
In a surprising development on another front, the council decided not to meet the last and best offer of the owner of the proposed new city hall at the north end of Linear Park. That negotiation now appears to be in limbo.
Tuesday evening's discussion of the fire assessment began with Danny Wallace, Williston Fire and Rescue's Public Information Officer, further reviewing the results of the study, which had been refined by additional information-gathering.
Wallace pointed out that about 60 percent of the department's costs are reimbursed by Levy County because the calls are outside the city limits. The portion of the 2008-2009 budget determined to be for incidents within the city limits was $161,330.70, and it was that number that needed to be apportioned.
Fire Chief Lamar Stegall, who was the chief architect of the study, had explained the methodology at previous meetings. Each of the 1,058 residences was to be charged a flat fee, as were individual parcels of vacant land. Buildings with non-residential uses, principally business and houses of worship, were to be assessed by square footage.
The final recommendations presented to council for fiscal year 2008-2009 were $66.14 per residence, $9.60 per vacant land parcel and 6.82 cents per square foot for non-residential structures. The report shows that 165 of the 230 non-residential structures are less than 5,000 square feet, so that the annual assessment would be less than $341.
Council accepted those figures and went on to consider several outstanding issues. As the discussion of how to assess churches went on, it became increasingly obvious that council members, once presented with actual figures, were reconsidering the wisdom of imposing any fee at all.
Council president Jones pointed out to her colleagues that before they discussed any more details, they needed to make the larger determination - whether to proceed with the assessment at all.
Councilman Brooks Holloway pointed out that council had already decided to increase the millage rate and he felt that a separate fire service levy would be seen as an additional tax. He said that if the fire levy took effect, he would like to see it offset by a reduction in the millage rate.
City attorney Norm Fugate pointed out that millage was used only as a basis for ad valorem taxes and that the fire assessment was dedicated to funding a specific service.
Councilman Cal Byrd said that he'd been approached by many Williston citizens who were firmly against any additional tax burden. Other council members reported similar conversations since the possibility of a separate fire assessment became widely known.
Council vice president Mike Shoemaker suggested that the idea might be more palatable in a year in which the economic climate was less gloomy.
After further discussion along those lines, council voted 4-1 to shelve the subject for this year.
Council members expressed praise and gratitude to Wallace for the excellent work done on the study.
Though it was not on the agenda, the question of the status of acquiring the former Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the new city hall was raised during the general comments session that ends each meeting. This subject is evidently at a stalemate. At council's request, city manager Mark Schiefer was prepared to make a counter-offer to the Church's final offer. Before it was formalized, however, Schiefer was informed by the broker handling the transaction that the Church would not entertain any changes to its final price.
When council members urged that the counter-offer be made in an option contract despite the Church's protests, Fugate said that he thought that such an action was futile in the current situation. Jones, who has long been a champion of the project, suggested that the city meet the Church's final offer. She said that the subject of a new city hall had been debated for years and that "this is as close as you've ever come" to a viable solution.
Shoemaker said that he'd considered the matter and was coming around to the view, previously expressed by some of his colleagues, that the city simply couldn't afford the expense in the current financial climate. Councilman Cal Byrd said ruefully that he didn't think this was the appropriate time to consider such a major expenditure.
After further heated discussion, the matter was left unresolved and no further action will be taken for the moment.
At the beginning of the meeting, John Hutchison, a member of Boy Scout Troop 420, sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, told the council that he'd undertaken to organize refurbishing and painting all of the fire hydrants in the city as part of his Eagle Scout project. He said that the task had been accomplished over three weekends and that it had consumed about 300 man-hours. Hutchinson said that 30 people had participated on the first Saturday of the project. Council members congratulated him on his accomplishment and thanked him and his Scout compatriots for their efforts.
Pam Blair, executive director of the Enterprise Zone Development Agency, asked council to contribute $3,446.53 as Williston's portion of her agency's budget for 2008-2009. She pointed out that this request was less than that granted last year. The budget is shared among Levy County and the cities of Bronson, Williston and Chiefland, all of which benefit from projects within the Enterprise Zone.
Blair said that the agency had reduced its budget by 15 percent this year before requesting half of its total funds from the county and the cities involved.
Council voted unanimously to grant the EZDA request for funds.
Councilman Holcomb told his colleagues that he'd met with the Planning and Zoning Board in reference to an additional FRDAP grant for the East Williston Park. The money would be used for a softball field with lighting, playgrounds, soccer fields, basketball courts, a trike trail and other facilities that will enhance the park and increase its use. This would be the third grant for the East Williston project. The first was used to purchase the property and the second is being used for infrastructure and equipment.
Council approved going ahead with the grant application, which will be handled by the Fred Fox Agency.
Council approved Ordinance 585 on its second and final reading. The ordinance provides for modifications to the Community Redevelopment Plan and for re-adoption of the plan with the modifications included.
Council also accepted a bid from Brady Construction of Ocala for the first phase of Linear Park improvement. Of the eight bidders, Brady offered the lowest price at $227,711.25. Bids ranged upward to a high bid of $338,069.37. Burrell Engineering Inc., which is handling the park project, recommended the Brady bid. Ken Frink, the project manager, told council in a letter that he'd contacted four references and all of them provided high recommendations for the firm.
Wallace announced that the Fire Department will hold an open house on August 28 from 6 to 8 p.m. to formally dedicate the long-awaited new engine.
The group was informed that Alachua County had donated a surplus BMW motorcycle to the Williston Police Department. Though the bike needs some repairs, both the machine and the training for two officers are being provided at no cost.
Councilman Holcomb questioned the usefulness of the motorcycle in Williston and objected to the funds that must be spent to refurbish and operate it.
Council meetings are held on the first and third Tuesdays of each month at 7 p.m. in the council chambers at city hall. The agenda is available at the city hall offices and online on the preceding Friday afternoon. Public participation is encouraged.