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Council cuts police position

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By Pat Hibbs

After some opening pleasantries, the Williston City Council focused on the subject that concerns everyone in the nation: finances. Paying expected bills, authorizing some unexpected expenditures, contracting for budgeted items and suggestions for new revenue streams were the primary thrust of the meeting.

First, the pleasantries. Mayor R. Gerald Hethcoat presented awards to students of the month Jalyria Dallas (JBES), Connor Edwards (WES), Joel Blitch (WMS) and Tyrie Boyer (WHS). Students are nominated by teachers and administrators at their respective schools. Each receives a certificate of accomplishment as well as a pizza donated by King Munchies.

Philles Gatchell, former chair of the Planning and Zoning Board, was honored for her many years of service to that body. Gatchell joined the board 14 years ago and was elected its chair at her first meeting. She asked not to be reappointed when her current term expired on Oct. 1, citing other obligations.

Hethcoat, on behalf of the city council, presented Gatchell a plaque commemorating her contributions to the community and said she will be sorely missed.

Gatchell's departure creates the second vacancy on the P&Z board. Council has received applications from four people for those two seats. Anthony Della Rocco, Cara Fortney, Lindsey Hager and Lura Alice Kinzer were all at the meeting. Council president Debra Jones marveled at the embarrassment of riches, noting that it was quite unusual to have more applicants for a city board than spots on the panel.

After some discussion, council decided that each member would rate the applicants individually, the ratings tabulated and the results announced at the next council meeting. In that way, Planning and Zoning will have a full complement of members for its next meeting at the end of the month.

There will be some additional funds coming in from the Department of Transportation to reimburse the city for maintaining the traffic light at the intersection of SR 121 with US 41, at the Corner Market. Until now, the county has been receiving the funds for that maintenance. As proposed, the reimbursement for that light totals $1,854 annually, increasing the city's payments from DOT to $6,798.

Jones wondered aloud whether the county was going to reimburse the city for past years' maintenance.

Police Chief Dan Davis announced the resignation of one of his officers. Under the new ground rules set during the budget meetings, department heads are required to petition city council to replace personnel who leave the city's employ. The thrust of that decision was to save money by attrition of personnel rather than by letting go existing city staff.

Davis said that the officer who had resigned had been "the thirteenth," to which some council members had objected during budgeting. While sympathetic to Chief Davis's needs, councilman Cal Byrd said that council had made a general decision, and should stick to it, now that the first instance had arisen.

Davis raised the question of further attrition in his department, which, he said, is more likely than in other areas of city government, as competition for qualified law enforcement officers in the area is always an issue. Davis said he was afraid that the police department would bear the brunt of the attrition decision. Members of the council agreed that such a scenario was possible and assured Chief Davis that every decision would take into account, most prominently, public safety. Each request, they said, would be evaluated on an individual basis.

Councilman Steve Holcomb raised again the issue of billing insurance companies for response to structure fires. He said that many homeowners' policies have a clause that covers fire response, and pointed out that the city had at one time done that sort of billing and realized income from it. Attorney Fugate said that he believed that if a fee were charged, it should be charged across the board, and it should be a fixed fee. Holcomb said that the fee used to be $250, and it was agreed that that was what most insurance companies will cover. People who do not have insurance that covers fire calls would be billed but not required to pay any such fee.

This is still a work in progress. Fire Chief Lamar Stegall and Mayor Hethcoat will do some further research.

Chief Davis then raised the subject of billing for police response to accidents. This subject had been thoroughly debated during the past two years or so, including a presentation by Cost Recovery Corp., which is in the business of assessing the collecting such fees. Davis pointed out that the city of Ocala had contracted recently with CRC to provide the service.

Early objections to the plan in Williston had been the necessity of applying it across the board - even to city residents, who pay for such services in tax levies - and attorney Fugate's concerns about its rarity in Florida, where the laws are not clear.

The item will be back on the agenda at the next meeting, after new council members are provided with information about the plan.

Resident Argy Hager rose to say that the city ought to be on a pay-as-you-go basis in the current financial climate. He said that he doesn't believe we need a new city manager - just increase Interim Manager Mark Schiefer's salary and do away with the manager position.

President Jones responded to Hager that the council would like nothing better than to have Schiefer assume the manager's title and responsibilities, but that he had steadfastly declined to do so. She added that Schiefer's workload was already overwhelming and that the city was afraid of losing such a valuable employee.

In that vein, seven of the eight manager candidates have agreed to come to Williston for interviews. Tentative dates were established, and Jones and City Clerk Barbara Henson will coordinate interview times.

Council approved a fee of $6,000 to Mills Engineering for preparation of permit renewal of the city's permit to operate its wastewater treatment facility. This is a supplement to a professional services agreement in effect since 2005 with Mills Engineering. All of the paperwork is required by the state Department of Environmental Protection by Nov. 13.

Reforestation services at the airport were awarded to Reforestation Experts, Inc., a Chiefland firm. Their bid of $67,500 was the lowest of those received from four companies in the area. Reforestation of the area cleared of pine trees about a year ago includes chemical treatment of herbicides to control hardwood and other vegetative growth, piling of logging debris for burning and planting and seeding of the 250 acre tract.

Finance director Mark Schiefer reassured council vice president Mike Shoemaker that the funds would come from the airport budget, and added that billing would be done as each process is completed.

Council accepted a bid from LMW Construction for East Williston Park. The job had been put out for bid with modifications to previous specifications when it became clear that available grant money would not cover the scope of the work. LMW's bid, at $133,600.70 was the lowest of three received. While the firm is based in Chiefland, its owner is a Williston resident.

Two change orders from Brady Construction Co. were also approved. Brady is doing the work on the first block of Williston Heritage Park. One change is to the curbing, and will cost an extra $3,750. The other deals with the excessive amount of clay found below the asphalt. Because clay is not an acceptable base for asphalt - it leads to cracks in the asphalt surface - workers had to remove more clay than expected and dig down to the subsurface, then fill the hole with an acceptable material. Otherwise, the company would not have provided a warranty on the work. The additional cost is $21,840.

Heritage Park expenditures are taken from TIF funds, and members of the CRA have been made aware of the extra costs.

The city accepted the sole bid, from V.E. Whitehurst & Sons, Inc., for resurfacing and paving of streets, playgrounds and parking lots for the current fiscal year. The bid is based on the current liquid asphalt price of $725 per ton.

Ordinance 587 was introduced for its first reading. It alters the city code to permit non-tenant business permits at the airport. This would allow transient businesses, like those involved in aircraft repair, to operate temporarily at the airport without leasing land or a building. The permits would be issued by the airport manager and would be issued only to firms meeting proper license and insurance requirements.

City attorney Norm Fugate explained that the purpose of the ordinance was simply to allow the permits and that the policy would have to be amended to include the details of the permitting procedure. Council approved the ordinance on its first reading.

Department heads reported on the status of other outstanding items - all still being worked on.

City council meets twice a month on Tuesdays at 7 p.m. in the city council chambers. Public participation in encouraged. The agenda is available at city hall and online on the Friday before the meeting.