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The High Springs City Commission approved a $9 million budget for the city 4-1 at a public hearing held Thursday evening.

Changes were seen in many departments to make up the $77,466 loss expected to occur due to a projected reduction in ad valorem tax revenues. The reduction comes as a result of maintaining the 6.15 millage rate while overall property values declined.

Commissioner Dean Davis cautioned the board against excess expenditures.

“We’ve made a lot of changes in the budget, and we don’t know how it’s going to shake it,” he said. “The way things are financially, this is not the time to spend more money.”

Conflict arose over the appropriate action in the midst of resignation of Fire Chief Verne Riggall. The fire department is now run by Captain. Bruce Gillingham.

The city’s position of fire chief has been abolished. And Commissioner Sue Weller voiced her opposition at the meeting.

“It gives the impression that we’re getting rid of the fire department,” Weller said. “I think we’re going down the wrong road.”

The commission discussed reinstating the fire chief position to replace the captain position. However, that would require opening the job to general application and increasing the position’s salary.

The commission agreed that they would like to keep on Captain Gillingham.

Mayor Larry Travis said that he had spoken to citizens who wanted to keep the position, but he felt the City needed to consider Captain Gillingham in the final decision.

“He’s a valuable member of our community,” he said. “He’s a valuable member of our fire department.”

City Commissioner Eric May said that he did not think switching Captain. Gillingham’s job title was a logical step for the city.

“I’d like to keep as much continuity as possible,” he said. “It sounds like we’re going to go through some significant dollars and some things, you know, to shuffle things around; go through a hiring process and so forth, put some employees in uncomfortable positions just so we can call him five letters instead of seven letters.”

After considerable discussion, commissioners opted not to reinstate the position of Fire Chief at this time.

Weller voted against the budget, citing concerns over the Fire Department issues.

The budget and ad valorem tax will be put to a final vote at the Sept. 19 meeting, held at 6:30 p.m. at the High Springs City Hall.

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How to keep a non-profit program for senior citizens running, and whether city employees should expect a 2 percent raise in their salaries instead of an annual bonus for the fiscal year of 2011-2012 were all addressed during the first public hearing of the City of Newberry’s 2011-2012 budget held Monday night.

City commissioners Robert Fillyaw and Alena Lawson opposed the budget reduction of the senior citizen program, Meals on Wheels, once residents in the meeting voiced their opposition.

Labeled as the Community Action Agency, Meals on Wheels shares a $22,000 budget with two other programs. The weatherization and temporary assistance program, which assists low-income families, would have been untouched, but Newberry’s Meals on Wheels would have been discontinued since it is funded primarily with this money.

Commissioners agreed that all funds for projects such as city fire works, listed to be around $2,000, and travel expenses for the city commission, around $6,530, would be redirected to the program instead.

Newberry residents also agreed with Newberry Fire Department Chief David Rodriguez about pay raises for city employees. He spoke out about not having a pay raise for several years.

“I’m working towards my retirement for the future, and I haven’t had a raise in four years,” he said.

Instead of having a one-time payout, which will only give city employees money for that particular year and does not contribute to retirement funds, Rodriguez said he would rather have a raise that would benefit him in the long run. The commission set aside $39,000 for the bonuses, but since the salary increase proposal ruled out the initial plan, the commission estimated that the budget would require an extra $6,000.

City commissioner Lois Forte agreed with Rodriguez about the raise, saying city employees are the backbone of Newberry.

“I think we have one of the best fire departments in the county,” she said. “If we can find money for other things, we can find money to give our employees a little raise.”

Initially the city budget had $6,280 in surplus funds, but it was all allocated to the pay raise.

Also on the agenda was the annexation of three properties, totaling nearly 39 acres.  City Commissioner Joe Hoffman did not vote as he owns two of the properties.

Projects such as the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center and Triangle Park are still in the works, and the commission is requesting community input before final approval. A town hall meeting to discuss the projects is planned for Monday.

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Political activist Charles Grapski is apparently facing a charge of contempt of court.

In an Aug. 25 letter, the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office was instructed by an Alachua County court to serve Grapski with court documents demanding his presence at a September hearing.

Judge James Nilon signed an order stating that sufficient evidence existed to charge Grapski with criminal contempt for his alleged statements and actions at a June 21 court hearing.

The order states that as Grapski’s case was called for hearing, he approached the podium and told Assistant State Attorney Shawn Thompson to “get a real job.”

At a later hearing on the same day, Grapski allegedly approached the table of Assistant State Attorney Shawn Thompson in an “aggressive manner,” pointed his finger at Thompson and stated to him, “you are a f---ing liar” not less than two times, the order alleges.

Grapski is being ordered to answer for the contempt charge in an arraignment set for Sept. 20 at 3 p.m.

Following the June 21 court incident, Grapski’s public defender, Deborah Phillips, submitted a motion to withdraw as counsel.

In her motion submitted on July 20, Phillips cited an “irreconcilable conflict of interest” as reason for her request.

In the June court hearing, Judge Nilon dismissed charges of probationary violations pending against Grapski.  The one-time Florida House and City of Alachua commission candidate had been facing four violations of probation alleged in a March 15 report.

The probationary supervision under which Grapski is currently monitored stems from a case dating back to August 2007.  That case didn’t make it to trial until November 2009, more than two years later.  After the five-day trial, a jury found Grapski guilty of battering two Alachua Police Department officers during a 2007 arrest.  In the days following his arrest, he reportedly also caused an officer at the Alachua County jail to be injured after she was pushed to the ground.

Grapksi may continue federal case

Last month, Federal District Court Judge Maurice Paul denied several motions by the City of Alachua and others defending themselves from a lawsuit filed by Grapski.

The 35-page ruling essentially requires Grapski to file an amended complaint by Friday, Sept. 9.  The judge agreed that Grapski’s lawsuit was too ambiguous in many respects, but said he could continue with the case provided clarity is given.

“The plaintiff shall file a second amended complaint by Friday, September 9, 2011, which more clearly articulates the specific conduct and charges applicable to each defendant,” Judge Paul wrote.

Among the reasons the City wanted parts of the case dismissed was that it said Grapski failed to state claims on which relief can be granted.

The lawsuit alleges a host of federal violations including several constitutional abridgments.  Grapski is claiming that his rights to freedom of speech, equal protection and against illegal searches and seizures were violated when he was removed from at least one Alachua City Commission Meeting in 2006 and handcuffed on two occasions.

The more than 60-page lawsuit has already been amended by Grapski on at least one prior occasion.

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My Brother’s Keeper Barbershop

BrothersKeeperAfter years away from Alachua, Romey Ford has come home to his roots.  Shown holding an old photograph of himself and his deceased brother, Ford operates My Brother’s Keeper Barbershop, embracing his reclaimed community and keeping the memory of his brother alive.

 

Romey Ford gave his first haircut at the age of 10. His client was his oldest brother, Tiwon Ford.

“He jumped on me, beat me up real good,” Romey said, “made me do it again.”

Seven weeks ago, Romey opened My Brother’s Keeper Barbershop at 15093 NW Highway 441 in Alachua.

He traces the beginning of his shop back to a visit by the Gainesville Sun when he was 14.

The newspaper was going around, finding out what local high school kids were doing for the summer. They had heard he was making a lot of money, cutting hair behind his mother’s house.

When they came to take his picture, he was cutting his younger brother Sharkei’s hair.

Five years ago, Sharkei was killed in a car crash on State Road 441.

The brothers had been driving in separate cars to a big family meal their mother was cooking for Romey’s temporary homecoming. Romey had just come home from serving in the military as a medic.

“I trained for eight years,” he said. “When this happened to my brother, I froze. It’s real then.”

He was the first responder, there to watch his brother die.

A year later, he received a medical discharge from the military due to back problems. Ford returned to Orlando, where he had been living with his wife and six children, cutting hair in an addition built on the side of his house.

He said he could not shake the feeling that his brother was with him.

“Whenever I would catch the time, it would be 4:41 or 1:44, reminders of 441, where he died,” Ford recalled. “I was still leaving Orlando to sit at Sharkei’s grave for six or seven hours once a month a year later.”

Then, someone brought him the picture from the Sun taken so many years earlier; he had not seen it since 1992.

That was when he knew it was time to return to Alachua and start a barbershop.

He spent three years looking for a location, trying to talk himself out of it when he got discouraged. However, he had his faith to give him strength.

“I am a religious man,” Ford said. “I didn’t borrow money or save any money to start. I was looking for favor.”

Finally, he found the perfect location. The intersection of 441 and NW County Road 235, where My Brother’s Keeper Barbershop is located, sees 21,000 cars pass through daily, according to Ford.

More importantly, it is right near where Sharkei was killed.

Ford started the business with only a $500 Lowe’s card and a vision.

“Write the vision, and make it plain on tablets, that he may run who reads it,” he quotes from Habakkuk, a book in the Old Testament.  “For the vision is yet for an appointed time; but at the end it will speak, and it will not lie.”

With this in mind, the first thing Ford did was paint the walls red. “My Brother’s Keeper” is also written in red on the front window.

To him the color is sacrificial, representing the loss of his brother.

“I am my brother’s keeper, and I’ve always been,” he said. He has no interest in further explaining the name of the shop.

“I want people to take the name and run with it,” he said. “I like that you can ask five different people and you’ll get five different things.”

Embracing and investing in his community is his guiding purpose.

Growing up poor in a huge family, he left Alachua at 18 to pursue an academic scholarship at the University of Florida, never intending to return. He said he felt like he was too good for his home, better than everyone there.

His first year in school, he had a child. Within a year and a half, he was gone, off to join the military.

Now that he has made a place in Alachua again, it is important to him to help the people that make up his community.

“I serve God by serving others,” he said. “If I can spark one person, then My Brother’s Keeper has done its job.”

He started off by planning to have two barbers. Since opening, he has allowed the break room to turn into a store and his storage room to be used by a cosmetologist.

Before he could even move into his office space, it was painted purple and taken over by two braiders, both single mothers. His office is now a single black filing cabinet in the main room.

“One year ago I was unemployed,” Ford said. “Now I employ nine people.”

He attributes this accomplishment to his faith, determination and will to not give up on his vision.

“After all, you can’t just make up another vision,” he said. “I left Alachua for 15 years, because I had to figure it out.”

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ChamberGrantGrant funding received by the Alachua Chamber of Commerce will be used to renovate the city’s former police station for use as a welcome center and office.

 A vacant Main Street building that was once a United States Post Office and later the Alachua Police Department will soon serve another purpose thanks to a $25,000 grant.

Awarded by the Alachua County Tourist Development Council (TDC), the grant provides a match to funds raised by the Alachua Chamber of Commerce for the purpose of renovating the old police station to create a welcome center.

Board member Linda Rice Chapman submitted the grant in hopes of obtaining funding to augment a building fund already underway by the Chamber.  When she received the news last week that the TDC was fully funding the grant, Chapman said she was overjoyed.

“I think this grant is the key to the success of our project,” Chapman said. “It’s what we have needed to make this project work.”

Renovations to the building include outfitting it as a welcome center for the Alachua area and Main Street.

“We want it to be a place where people who are visiting the area can stop in and get information about places to go, things to do and businesses nearby,” said Chapman.

Among the scope of work anticipated in the first phase of renovations is a new air conditioning system, electrical wiring and plumbing.

But the old police station will be much more than a welcome center for visitors.  Located across from Alachua County Today newspaper, the building will also become the Chamber’s first-ever permanent office.  The chamber’s new address will be 14801 Main Street, Alachua.

And thanks to a partnership with the Alachua Historical Society, a museum to be housed in the downtown center will give locals and visitors alike a bit of insight into Alachua’s more than 100-year history.

Phase one of the renovations will also include compliance with the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), making the building accessible to disabled individuals.

In conjunction with volunteers, the Chamber already conducted a workday during which interior walls, furniture remnants and debris were removed.  That came at a cost of about $250, Chapman said.  The Chamber spent another $3,000 for a contractor to remove asbestos from the building.

Phase two renovations would include additional cosmetic upgrades including exterior work and landscaping.

The entire renovation project is expected to cost an estimated $70,000.

In May, the Chamber and the City of Alachua, which owns the building, signed a lease on the facility.  Alachua Mayor Gib Coerper, City Manager Traci Cain and Chamber President Bob Page inked the lease agreement during the Chamber’s annual banquet in May.

The deal had been several years in the making, first surfacing when the Alachua Police Department began moving into its new location in 2006.

In lieu of charging a fee, the City agreed to provide the space to the Chamber in exchange for the Chamber’s repair, maintenance and general upkeep of the building in addition to continuing to fulfill the common business interests it shares with the City.  The term of the lease is 10 years.

The grant provided through the TDC will become available in the next fiscal year which begins Oct. 1.

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TroianoAn August survey of the High Springs Police Department officers and staff seems to tell a different story than a previous survey conducted by the Police Benevolence Association (PBA) of Florida in 2009.

High Springs Police Department (HSPD) Chief James Troiano, who resigned Sept. 2 amid budget woes, said in an interview last week that the surveys reflect a positive direction for the department.

“We’ve made great strides in bringing the department together,” he said.

In comparing the survey he conducted to that of the PBA more than two years earlier, Troiano said, “I believe that the commissioners and the members of this community clearly see that they were duped.”

With more than a week to answer the anonymous survey, just six respondents turned them in according to Troiano’s records.  That’s three fewer respondents than the PBA survey.  Unlike the previous survey, which was open only to members of the PBA, Troiano supplied the survey to the entire HSPD staff, which at the time included about 13 potential respondents.  Troiano said he and Lieutenant William Benck were excluded from the latest survey, although a member of the command staff was permitted to participate in the PBA survey.

One of the survey respondents wrote, “I believe the morale is low because of staffing issues that have been going on for several years.  A lot has to do with unforeseen problems… illness, injuries and terminations.”

Another wrote, “…overtime creates stress as well as single officers shifts.”

Again, pointing to the staffing shortages, a respondent wrote, “Morale is low but I feel this is due to a low staffing issue within our department; however, the morale is much better than it has been in the past… there is a lot less division within our department.”

Last week, Troiano said continued pressure to reduce the City budget has forced his department to cut back in areas where it shouldn’t have to.  “We already lost one police officer from the budget last year, now we’re losing another in me,” he said.

Troiano echoed the sentiments of one of the survey respondents who wrote, “It is ironic that with some staffing issues we’ve had that more will be paid in overtime to tired and overworked officers covering shifts than would be paid to regular full time employees if we had full staffing.”

As for how the chief ranks among the staff, there is a marked improvement based on survey results.

In the 2009 survey, seven officers directly stated that Troiano should be replaced, one other officer wrote “I have no confidence in [Troiano] as the Chief,” while another wrote, “I would like to have a leader that I can feel is looking out for me and not their own personal gain.”

In the August 2011 survey, however, when asked about the statement that “The Chief looks out for the best interests of the employees,” five agreed or strongly agreed while one respondent disagreed.

Again, five respondents agreed that disciplinary actions taken by the department were fair and commensurate with the complaint/violation, according to the survey tabulation.  Again, one respondent disagreed.

When asked what has changed at HSPD since the 2009 survey, one respondent simply wrote, “Absolutely nothing!!!”  Others meanwhile said that there were too many changes to list, but that they were for the better.

“I believe some officers took ‘sides’ when the new administration came in, and ‘balked’ at new ideas that were presented, which caused friction within the department,” another respondent wrote.

Other complaints by officers ranged from those relating to insurance benefits to a lack of advancement opportunities.

Summarizing the survey results in a memo to High Springs Interim City Manager Jenny Parham, Troiano said, “It is clear from the majority of the responders that a positive change has occurred at the HSPD.  Specifically, the departure of unnamed employees, more compliance or cooperation between the management and employees, better morale, people working together as a team, and less division.

“For the one who said ‘absolutely nothing,’ they just solidify my assumption that they are still part of the problem that I inherited in March 2008 when I became Chief of Police.”

Troiano said the surveys demonstrate that HSPD is better now than it was in 2009.

“I’m very proud of the survey results,” said Troiano. “I think it shows how much improvement we’ve made at the department.”

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A man was found dead at a local motel Sunday afternoon.  Alachua Police Department (APD) officers responded to a call at the Quality Inn Motel at 15960 NW US Highway 441 at approximately 1:30 p.m.

APD spokesman Jessie Sandusky said the deceased, who was identified as Clayton Thomas Calkins, was found by motel cleaning staff.

Calkins and a friend were both in town from Kansas, and working for a private firm.  Calkins had been seen drinking at Kazbor’s in Alachua Saturday night.

Authorities say it is unclear at this time what caused Calkins’ death.  Toxicology tests are being conducted to determine if drugs or alcohol were a factor.

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