Thu06302016

Last updateWed, 29 Jun 2016 1pm

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LaCrosse Housing Rehab Grant Spawns Ethics Issues

W-LaCrosse Council

CM WALKER/Alachua County Today

L-R: Mayor Dianne Dubberly, Town Attorney John Maines, Councilwoman Barbara Thomas, Councilman Johnny Ho, Vice-Mayor Tom Ewing and Councilman Richard Dubberly seek opinion from State DEO Department of Ethics.

LACROSSE – The most time-consuming issue facing members of the the LaCrosse Town Council at the March 14 meeting was how to handle conflict of interest relating to a $600,000 Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) for Housing Rehabilitation.

In a town as small as LaCrosse, with a population of fewer than 400 people, it is not surprising that many residents are related to each other.

The conflict arose as Gloria Garcia was a member of the Citizen Advisory Task Force (CATF) which helped to determine whether the Town should seek the grant. Garcia attended one CATF meeting, but has removed herself from any involvement in the selection process by not attending the second meeting where the list of applicants was reviewed and recommended for inclusion.

Three of Garcia's relatives, sister Aimee Garcia, father Pedro Garcia and aunt Gabriela Bustamante were among the applications reviewed and ultimately found to qualify under CDBG's guidelines for inclusion in the program.

“The CDBG program requires that each applicant provide information on family relationships with Town elected officials, Town employees, Citizen Advisory Task Force or Board Members,” said Jay Moseley, Senior Consultant for Government Services Group, Inc. (GSG).

GSG is the firm that assisted the Town in obtaining the grant and is also administering the grant to make sure it is handled according to the CDBG grant requirements.

“It is not uncommon for a community of this size to have these conflicts arise during the process of providing Housing Rehabilitation programs,” said Moseley. However, in a case like this, “the Town Council is required to apply for a conflict of interest waiver for the applicants,” he said.

In addition to Garcia's three relatives, who applied before the deadline along with other applicants, one additional person applied after the initial deadline and, according to Moseley, is also financially qualified. That person is Gloria Garcia herself.

“As we are contracted with [the Department of Economic Opportunity] to provide assistance to a total of nine single family homes, the inclusion of [this home] will assist the town in reaching their goal – and we have one additional slot to fill,” Moseley said.

Following lengthy discussion, Council members voted 4-0 to apply for a conflict of interest waiver for the four qualified applicants.

Although that vote met CDBG requirements, one more hurdle remained concerning the State's consideration regarding ethics related to Gloria Garcia's application to be included in the grant.

Town Attorney John Maines said he spoke with C. Christopher Anderson, III, General Counsel/Deputy Executive Director, Florida Commission on Ethics. Regarding the inclusion of Gloria Garcia's application, he said Anderson told him he could either leave it as is or the Town Council could submit a waiver to review the situation.

Although the Council voted 4-0 to apply for an opinion from the Department on Ethics, the Department of Economic Opportunity, administrators of the Housing, Rehabilitation and Replacement Grant, moved on their own Tuesday to request a legal opinion from the Florida Commission on Ethics.

Although it may appear that the grant is stalled, Moseley will continue to do the work required prior to beginning construction on the properties not in question.

In addition to the $600,000 CDBG grant, the county's State Housing Initiatives Partnership (SHIP) Program also added $125,000 more as a match. According to Town Mayor Dianne Dubberly, the SHIP Program has helped many of the smaller communities, but this is the first time she is aware of that they are providing funds for the Town of LaCrosse.

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Newberry's Katy Mae Harrison is Florida's Watermelon Queen

W-Watermelon Queen1A

Special to Alachua County Today

Florida Watermelon Queen Katy Mae Harrison represents the Florida watermelon industry throughout the country.

NEWBERRY – Katy Mae Harrison of Newberry is the new Florida Watermelon Queen.

Harrison was crowned as the 2016 Florida Watermelon Queen during the 48th Annual Florida Watermelon Association Convention held Jan. 15-17 at the Renaissance Tampa International Plaza Hotel.

As Watermelon Queen, Harrison travels all over the state and nation to promote the importance of the watermelon industry in Florida.

“As the Florida Watermelon Queen, I will travel throughout the United States and Canada, serving as a spokesperson/ambassador for the watermelon industry,” Harrison said. “I will hold the state title for one year and then in February 2017 I will represent Florida and compete for the 2017 National Watermelon Queen.”

Harrison, 23, is the daughter of Billy Ray and Sherri Harrison of Newberry. She attends Santa Fe College in Gainesville, majoring in Business Administration.

The goal of the Florida Watermelon Queen is to encourage consumers to buy Florida watermelons. Her work includes in-store promotions, visiting schools and touring farms.

She will make appearances at fairs and agricultural conventions to educate consumers about the health benefits and economic value of watermelons.

Harrison says her family played a huge part in helping her achieve the honor.

“I have a wonderful family that encouraged and supported me to compete to be the 2016 Florida Watermelon Queen,” Harrison said. “This unique adventure and opportunity allows me to travel and experience the agricultural industry at many different levels.”

According to its official website, www.flfwa.com, The Florida Watermelon Association was formed to enable growers and marketers of the Florida Watermelon Association to unite and through a concerted, organized membership work to promote the consumption of watermelons grown in Florida.

“After all,” Harrison said, “Florida is the biggest producer of watermelons in the United States, and watermelon is Florida’s fifth top value crop, producing $80 million a year. It is a big responsibility to represent the growers, brokers, and everyone that is involved in the watermelon industry. I am very excited to be the 2016 Florida Watermelon Queen.”

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High Springs enlists code enforcement to clean up blight

Q - HS codes WALKER IMG 1915

C.M. WALKER/Alachua County Today

One of several neglected and overgrown High Springs properties the city hopes to clean up through a clean up campaign that will include additional similar properties. City staff will also be identifying city-owned properties to clean up and sell to the highest bidder.

HIGH SPRINGS – Members of the High Springs Code Board met for the first time in four years on March 1 to discuss ways in which some of the blighted areas in the city could be improved.

The next morning, City Manager Ed Booth, Building Inspector Scott Thomason and former Code Board member Mike Kearney were seen driving around the city identifying specific properties that appeared to be abandoned, overgrown and falling into disrepair.

Cleaning up the city has been a project Booth has mentioned several times at recent city meetings.

“We are going to be meeting on a monthly basis from now on,” said Booth, “and we intend to have properties for the board to review at each meeting.”

Kearney, who Booth said has a Code Enforcement Certificate which will allow him to contract with the city, will assist in selling 14 properties the city currently owns.

“He is locating the city-owned properties and determining the range of value so when we go out for bid, the city will get the most we can for those 14 properties,” said Booth. “The idea is that we want to put those properties back on the tax roll and get them cleaned up."

Booth hopes to get enough money from the sale of the city-owned properties to pay for the cleanup of others.

“I should get enough money from the sale of those properties to contract with the prison for workers to clean up the other properties we are identifying,” he said.

Booth also wants to have a clean-up weekend to encourage property owners to get rid of old tires and junk that may have accumulated around their homes.

“We would provide hot dogs and hamburgers and rally our citizens to help make our city presentable,” he said. “High Springs is definitely growing and we need to look like we're prosperous and support the growth process. I have faith our citizens want our city to look like a place people want to visit and possibly move into.”

For those who cannot clean up their property because of age or disability, neighbors, friends and church members can be a big help.

For those who aren't interested in cleaning up their properties, “we will bring their situation to the Code Board,” said Booth. The board can fine those property owners. If that still doesn't work, the board can authorize the city to go onto the property, clean it up and apply the cost of the cleanup to the homeowner in the form of a lien against their property.

“Sometimes a homeowner will die and their children or heirs, who may live far away, do not want the property,” said Booth. “In that case, they can either choose to turn the property over to the city and we'll clean it up and sell it or they can authorize us to clean it up and send them the bill,” he said.

Booth said he is talking about hundreds of properties, not just a few. “We identified about 30 as an initial start, plus we have at least a hundred more that are owned and inhabited that need to be cleaned up as well. It's just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

Booth contends that properties with underbrush, vines and garbage are unsafe. “They fester rodents and snakes, and many of those properties have owners who need to step up and address their overgrown yards and lots,” he said.

Several Douglass area community members have asked the city to improve the properties in their area. The city met with residents at Allen Chapel earlier this week to discuss their needs.

“We have been talking about creating another redevelopment area in High Springs. Our Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) is extremely interested in pursuing the Douglass Community area as the next CRA District,” said Booth.

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Celebrating Yulee Days

W-Yulee Days image 51

KRISTINA ORREGO/Alachua County Today

Loud booms and billowing smoke accompanied Archer Historical Society member Robert Kasicki's firing of a 19th Century style cannon.

ARCHER – The whistles of the trains in Archer were once loud enough to distract children as they sat in school. The noise scared chickens so much they stopped laying eggs.

Ann Green, a member of the Archer Historical Society, said the people of Archer didn’t have the easiest time getting used to the Yulee Railroad when its line was completed through Archer in March of 1858.

Yet nearly 160 years later, it’s a reason for a festival.

Local families and vendors came out Saturday for Yulee Day, an event held every March in Archer to celebrate the Yulee Railroad.

A line-up of cars, men on motorcycles from the Gainesville Shrine Club and an Alachua County fire truck all made their way through the street for a parade during the afternoon.

Boisterous booms left heavy clouds of gray smoke in the air as Historical Society member Robert Kasicki fired 19th Century-style canons outside his home.

The Archer Historical Museum was open to visitors to peruse 19th Century relics and featured a miniature model railroad, which continuously coursed around while children watched on in awe.

Mayor Corey Harris said he was excited about the event because he considers it to be a great way to show Archer’s rich history.

“Yulee Day is an opportunity for the citizens to host a number of families and individuals from surrounding communities and showcase and highlight what the city of Archer is all about,” he said.

David Levy Yulee, born June 12, 1810, founded the Florida Railroad Company and served as its president from 1853 to 1866. It was the first cross-state railroad and ran from Fernandina Beach to Cedar Key, according to Green.

Green said the railroad became the way Yulee, owner of Cotton Wood Plantation just outside of Archer, could transport cotton either to Fernandina or Cedar Key, where it would get put on boats and sent to Cuba or Northern states.

Yulee also studied and practiced law in St. Augustine. He served as a U.S. senator from 1845 to 1851 and 1855 to 1861.

“The sentiment around the railroad is it’s about the main thing we have right now that we celebrate on an annual basis,” Green said. “[The railroad] doesn’t run anymore, but it’s still marked.”

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Taking the high road: High Springs host BMX state championship qualifiers

BMX

ROBERT KORSON/Special to Alachua County Today

Benny Wright carries the flag at teh Sunshine State Florida Cup Race at High Springs BMX.

HIGH SPRINGS – Over 880 BMX riders ranging in age from 18 months to 50 participated in the Sunshine State Florida Cup Race at High Springs BMX from Feb. 26 to 28.

The race, a qualifier for the state championship, included stops 5 and 6 of the 10-stop series that has taken place over five weekends.

The next qualifier will be from April 1 to 3 in Naples, followed by another from April 29 to May 1 in Cape Coral. The Florida state championship will take place in St. Cloud from May 20 to 21.

Laura Pringle, the track operator at High Springs BMX, said now is the peak time for riders, who advance based on a point system, to be working hard to accumulate points at every part of the series.

“It’s midway through the season,” she said. “So, after the holidays, people are really getting into race mode. They’re starting to scramble to try to get better qualifiers to move up in the rankings of their particular age and proficiency ranking.”

She said the track in High Springs attracts men and women of all different skill levels, from novices to experts.

The weekend before the race in February, several elite riders raced in Tampa for an international event, which also served as a qualifier for a world championship, she said.

“We actually had some of them take advantage of the opportunity to come and race as well,” she said. “Some of our pro classes were stacked with riders from all over the world, including the current world champion in the Elite Men.”

Jeff Korson, 29, placed first in the Cruiser Class division during the race at High Springs.

Korson, who’s been riding BMX since 2004, said he had previously been beaten by several riders but began training to finally win.

“[To train] I actually started riding dirt bikes a little bit,” he said. “That helped me to be able to do full laps, consistently. And then as far as getting out of the gate, the explosive power. I’ve been doing a lot of jump spots. It felt great to finally beat them.”

He said he plans to add weight training in preparation for the championship race in May because he won’t have the home track advantage.

Ashley Turner, who won second place in her division, said she’s been riding BMX since she was 5 years old. The sport is a family affair – she said both her parents are also riders.

“My mom is number one in the state of Florida for the Cruiser division and for the Woman’s class,” she said. “And my dad does it for fun but he wants to compete as well. Pretty much, I felt determined to work harder to reach number one.”

Turner said her training routine before a race includes running, weight training and plyometrics to help her easily get over jumps.

High Springs BMX, established in 2002, is a not for profit organization run completely by volunteers and relies entirely on sponsorship and entry fees, according to its website.

“I think what also makes our track special is that it’s extremely well maintained and very well designed,” Pringle said. “So it’s really popular among the riders. They really enjoy riding the track. It’s challenging but it’s also fun.”

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