We were still working on the Barnett Tract in 2014

  1. In January of 2014  the town of White Springs was selected to participate in the Competitive Florida Partnership Pilot Program through the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. The Town had until June 30, 2014 to complete the deliverables specified in the contract with DEO including holding public meetings for citizens and business leaders, preparing a history and previous attempts at economic development as well as preparing a strategic plan for major priorities.  Included in this scope of work was mapping of community assets and identification of areas needing improvement, all of which was completed on time.

One major issue that was identified was the lack of lodging – hotels, cabins, RV hook-ups and campsites – in the town that could accommodate visitors and guests during major events at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park, such as the annual Folk Festival, and various events sponsored throughout the year by the Suwannee Bicycle Association, which draws hundreds of cyclists and nature enthusiasts to the town and surrounding areas.

One result, after meeting with the Suwannee River Water Management District and the Lands Committee, was that an approximate 180 acres of land adjacent to the town’s old sewer plant (referred to as the Barnett Tract) was conveyed over to the town for development of an eco-friendly lodge. The property has subsequently been surveyed and a deed of conveyance is being drawn up by town attorney Fred Koberlein. “Once that is complete, it goes back to the SRWMD governing board for their signature,” said Mayor Helen Miller, who has been spear-heading eco-tourism development in White Springs.

The only restriction is that the town cannot sell the land, Miller explained. The town will be seeking private sector partners to form a public-private partnership to develop and operate the eco-friendly lodge. “The objective is to create jobs in the community by facilitating private sector investment that will result in additional revenue and taxes flowing to the town, which is how the town benefits from that kind of development,” said Miller. The town received $40,000 in funding from DEO.  Yet since funds for these projects are not kept separately, somehow $40,000 was rumored lost and it had to be replaced with Sewer and Water Funds.

Karin for the blog

White Springs town manager questions use of grant funds


Posted: Thursday, May 21, 2015 8:18 am

By Joyce Marie Taylor joycemarie.taylor@gaflnews.com

(Editor’s note: The White Springs Town Council met Wednesday night and prior to our deadline to discuss the hiring of a new town manager following Manager Bill Lawrence’s resignation earlier this week. See a complete story on this next week.)

White Springs Mayor Rhett Bullard presided over his first town council meeting on Tuesday, May 12, since taking office on April 30.

The first item on the agenda after the invocation, pledge to the flag, roll call and agenda amendments was supposed to be an Officer Down Memorial Service, however, it was delayed about 30 minutes.

A few items were added to the agenda, including a request from Councilwoman Helen Miller, who stated Town Manager Bill Lawrence wanted to add to old business a discussion on the completion of a VisitFlorida grant.

Councilwoman Tonja Brown asked that an item be added to new business regarding a workshop that they needed to prepare for that Bullard wanted to do.

“Is it a workshop to discuss future town issues?” Bullard prompted her.

“Yes,” said Brown.

Lawrence asked that an item be added to old business regarding a lease for parking at the ball field by a resident who wanted it extended for another two years. He also asked that Resolution 15-05 be added to new business, regarding adopting an assistance participation plan that would supersede the one adopted in 2007.

After brief department head reports, the focus turned to old business and the VisitFlorida grant, which took up a good portion of the meeting. The grant is titled White Springs Nature and Heritage Center-USPS Pictorial Postmark Program, Miller noted.

“This was the U.S. Pictorial Postmark program, which also provided the funding for the Florida Quilt Trail and the White Springs Florida Quilt Trail activities,” said Miller. “The grant is for $5,000 and it does list the activities that need to be funded. This is a grant where the town pays for the expenses and when it’s complete, it gets reimbursed by VisitFlorida.”

Miller said what was left to do on the grant program was to use $1,000 for marketing, as listed in the Project Budget Detail, which she said is provided on page 3 of the grant application. She asked that $1,000 be allocated to the Nature & Heritage Tourism Center account.

Lawrence noted earlier that PotashCorp-White Springs had donated $1,000 to keep the tourism center open for the month of May to accommodate the Florida Folk Festival.

Another item that needed to be completed on the VisitFlorida grant, Miller noted, was to produce designs for postcards, T-shirts and shopping bags based on the YoYo Quilt pictorial postmark, and that there was enough money in the grant budget to fund it.

“To get the funds released or reimbursed to us, we have to complete the entire project, so I have asked Mr. Lawrence to provide the authorization to complete the project, so that all funds that have been expended can be reimbursed,” Miller told the council.

Councilman Willie Jefferson asked where the upfront money was coming from to do the project and Miller told him it would come from the economic development account.

“These are the funds that were generated for the town by performing the work for year one of the DEO Competitive Florida project,” Miller explained. “These are not revenue funds and these are not Enterprise funds.”

Jefferson conferred to Lawrence, who said he had concerns and wanted to speak with VisitFlorida Grant Administrator Susan Gale to see if the $1,000 for operating costs at the tourism center was appropriate use of the funds.

“I kinda disagree with that,” said Lawrence.

Lawrence said he was concerned about taking money out of the economic development account because it was down to $15,536.

“The UF pavilion cost us $4,837… $1,475 was raised in donations, which meant we took $3,362 from that account to pay off the bill so these kids could graduate,” Lawrence said.

Miller noted after the meeting that she had allocated $1,225 of her mayor salary and raised another $1,000 in donations for a total of $2,225 for the pavilion project, and that Lawrence’s figures were wrong.

“We also have a UF subcontract for DEO in the second year of deliverables, one for the I-75/CR 136 site plan that is estimated at $10,000, and another one for the White Springs Eco-lodge planning and development at $15,000,” Lawrence advised the councilors. “Now, these deliverables we will get reimbursed, but by the same token, we signed a contract with UF to pay these when the invoices come in and I was going to pay that out of the economic development account.”

Lawrence continued, saying, “Obviously, if we’re on the hook for $25,000, we only have $15,000 in the account before we start getting reimbursed. I feel like we have more debt out there than we can pay and I’m just not real comfortable with that, but I have no problems doing what this council is asking me to do.

Lawrence said if after speaking with VisitFlorida and being advised that it is appropriate to use $1,000 of the grant funds for the tourism center in order to keep it open for another month, then he would be okay with it.

Lawrence and Miller both noted that the deliverables for DEO’s Competitive Florida Partnership Program had to be completed by June 15, in order to seek reimbursement for funds in the amount of up to $40,000. Lawrence said he wasn’t sure how quickly they would get the reimbursement monies.

Vice Mayor Walter McKenzie asked Lawrence if there was any concern that the town would not get reimbursed from VisitFlorida and Lawrence said, “No, not to date.” McKenzie then asked Miller whose idea it was to use some of the VisitFlorida grant funds for the tourism center.

“That’s what we submitted it for,” Miller replied.

“And they agreed to it?” McKenzie asked.

“Well, yeah, they provided the funds for the project,” said Miller.

Miller said she gave Lawrence a copy of the project budget and details that morning and asked why he did not contact VisitFlorida if he had questions about the use of funds. Lawrence said he tried calling Susan Gale at VisitFlorida, but could not reach her, so he left her a phone message.

Miller noted that the grant is named after the tourism center. McKenzie said he remembered discussing the matter when the grant was originally applied for and that VisitFlorida was agreeable to the use of the funds. Miller added that they were looking for ways to generate funds to keep the tourism center open.

“That’s why it wound up in the budget to begin with,” said Miller.

“I don’t want us to say we’re worried we won’t get paid back because we will get paid,” McKenzie told Lawrence. “Those statements will come back to haunt you the next time you go to apply for a grant. If we already basically agreed what the grant was and what the expenditures were, and where they were to be spent, and we go to question that or try to change it, I’m concerned that people are going to look at that kind of behavior when we apply for future grants.”

Bullard suggested tabling the matter until their next meeting, so that they could get an answer from VisitFlorida.

When asked by Miller, Lawrence said he had no issue with the other items in the grant.

“I just want to be sure we’re playing by the rules,” he said.

“Absolutely,” Miller told him. “That’s why I presented the memo and attachments to you earlier today.”

Miller said if the council chose to do nothing, they would not be reimbursed by VisitFlorida for any of the funds that have already been expended.

After some heated discussion, where Lawrence said he disagreed with statements being made, he clarified that he was uncomfortable taking funds from the VisitFlorida grant that were earmarked for marketing and using them for operational costs of the tourism center. Brown then made a motion to table the matter until Lawrence heard back from VisitFlorida. Jefferson seconded the motion and it passed by a vote of 3-2 with McKenzie and Miller voting against.

On Monday, May 18, Lawrence advised that he received an e-mail response from the grants team at VisitFlorida regarding use of the $1,000 for operational costs at the tourism center. It stated: “William, be advised that you are correct, in that, the memo is referring to costs that are not an allowable expenditure for the grant program. The allowable costs must be specific to executing marketing programs to publicize the tourism advantages of the state of Florida.”

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