Education: School Squabble- Northeast- Nov. 2003
After years of fighting a running battle over school expansion, Nelmar Terrace residents claim the 118-year-old institution is close to swallowing their neighborhood -- replacing old homes with dorms, surrounding it all with a secure boundary. The proposed dormitories will house adult students, some of whom currently share space with elementary-age children.
"Florida School for the Deaf and Blind is in the process of destroying an entire city block," says Nelmar Terrace Neighborhood Association President Melinda Rakoncay. "The school has showed no interest in the concerns of its neighbors or of city and state laws."
Expansion opponents won a small victory when the city's planning and zoning board postponed a vote on the school's application to remove nine homes and replace them with four dormitories. Though the board urged school officials to work with neighbors to come up with a suitable plan, the growing animosity between the two sides all but precludes a negotiated settlement.
With powerful friends in City Hall and statewide influence that belies its size, the nation's largest public boarding school for the hearing- and visually impaired is used to getting its way. It is not, however, accustomed to the rush of negative publicity it has faced in recent weeks.
While the school's neighborhood squabble has been front-page news locally, a highly critical report from the state Auditor General's Office has prompted concern in Tallahassee over the institution's management. Among the audit's findings: The school improperly deposited nearly $2.5 million in accounts outside the state treasury, hired a private lobbyist to represent it in the Legislature and did not follow state laws and "good business practice" when purchasing $2.2 million in land for its expansion. As a result, auditors say, the school paid $800,000 too much for the homes it plans to demolish.
Though the two are arguably separate, the audit's conclusion that the Deaf and Blind School violated 13 state regulations has given expansion opponents a platform from which to attack the school's perceived arrogance.
"The fact that (school officials) are moving ahead with this expansion proves they haven't learned a thing from the Auditor General's report," Rakoncay says.
While school officials say they are correcting problems uncovered in the audit, they insist the land acquisitions adhered to state rules.
In a letter to the daily St. Augustine Record, state Board of Education member and former Deaf and Blind School trustee William Proctor charged "an adversarial attitude on the part of the auditor" led to some of the negative conclusions.
"The Board of Trustees (has) acted responsibly and in good faith in its effort to provide for the security, safety and education of (its) students," Proctor said.
IN THE NEWS
Alachua County -- Commissioners are considering a 1-cent sales tax increase to pay for improvements to county roads and parks. A proposed referendum, targeted for the fall 2004 ballot, would raise $122 million over five years.
Fernandina Beach -- The City Commission approved a temporary moratorium on development while it rewrites land-use regulations to square them with the city's comprehensive plan.
Four new hotels will add more than 100 rooms to the city's lodging inventory. Three of the hotels will be built near the intersection of Atlantic and Fletcher avenues, with a fourth on the oceanfront.
Gainesville -- Shands Gainesville will spend up to $500,000 to convert its emergency room and surgical unit into a Level 1 trauma center. If it wins state Department of Health accreditation, the hospital will join Shands Jacksonville as northeast Florida's only other top-tier trauma center.
University of Florida Foundation CFO Kenneth Hillier was charged with stealing nearly $700,000 in foundation operating funds.
GloTech Industries Inc. (OTC-GTHI.OB) will market its glow-in-the-dark safety products to local and state agencies though an agreement with the Florida Partnership for Safety and Health. GloTech's "electroluminescent" technology is applied to vests, bicycle frames, helmets and other items to make them visible at night.
The University of Florida has opened a research and education center in Paris, which will provide classrooms and office support for students and faculty studying and working abroad.
Jacksonville -- LB Jax Development plans to convert the 18-story Barnett Bank building downtown into a hotel/apartment complex, with 75 loft apartments on the upper floors and 80 hotel rooms below.
Six months after moving its corporate headquarters from Santa Barbara, Calif., Fidelity National Financial announced plans to build a six-story, 168,000-sq.-ft. office building and 1,700-space parking garage across the street from its Riverside Avenue headquarters.
The Haskell Co. and St. Joe Co. (NYSE-JOE) are competing to build a high-end retail/residential complex on the riverfront site of the former JEA Southbank power plant. The two firms recently tussled over who would redevelop the Riverside YMCA site. St. Joe prevailed.
Joseph Wiley resigned as Jacksonville University's chief financial officer after faculty approved a vote of no-confidence upon hearing the university is $2.3 million in debt. JU President David Harlow blamed the shortfall on overly optimistic financial projections and stock market losses.
The Jacksonville Economic Development Commission approved a $762,000 tax refund for Flightstar Aircraft Services to expand and lease a 180,000-sq.-ft. building at the Cecil Field Commerce Center.
The downtown Adam's Mark hotel has fallen behind on its repayment of a $13-million city construction loan. Hotel managers blame the approximately $1.1-million shortfall on lower-than-expected occupancy caused by a sluggish national economy.
Bennett Brown, former president and COO of CNB National Bank of Jacksonville, and a group of investors have applied to state and federal regulators for permission to open American Enterprise Bank of Florida on the city's Southside.
Mayo Clinic has joined a National Cancer Institute trial to determine the best screening test for lung cancer. The $200-million study will involve 50,000 current and former smokers nationwide, including about 1,000 from northeast Florida.
Toll Brothers, a Huntingdon Valley, Pa.-based home builder, has purchased the assets of developer Richard R. Dostie Inc.
FLORIDA TRENDLINE?Cost of Living
Stretching a DollarJacksonville consistently ranks among the most affordable big cities in Florida. The area's score of 94.3 is based on a national average of 100. Major contributing factors include housing (82.9) and utilities (88). Here's how other Florida cities compare:CityAffordability rankingSt. Petersburg-Clearwater90.5Jacksonville94.3Tampa95.9Orlando98.0Tallahassee104.8Sarasota105.1West Palm Beach-Boca Raton107.8Source: ACCRA Fourth-Quarter 2002 Cost of Living Index
Melrose -- City leaders are weighing a possible referendum on incorporation. A group from the Melrose Business and Community Association met with the Gainesville city manager to explore the advantages and disadvantages of municipal government.
Ponte Vedra Beach -- Global Axcess Corp. (OTC-GLXS.OB) will purchase 900 automated teller machine merchant accounts from an unidentified company. The accounts provide on-site ATM services to retailers in the Southeast and Southwest.
A $4-million Environmental Education Center at Guana River State Park is expected to open late next year. The 21,000-sq.-ft. facility will include a 150-seat auditorium and 2,100 square feet of exhibit space.
A Sawgrass couple won a $3-million judgment against Atlanta-based Orkin Exterminating Co. when an arbitrator ruled that Orkin had failed to live up to the terms of an 8-year-old contract promising to rid their home of termites.
Putnam County -- Calling Crescent City "the red-headed stepchild of the county," business owner Russ Gordon has spearheaded the formation of a merchants association to promote the town of 1,500.
St. Johns County -- The St. Johns County Airport Authority rejected a request by Daytona Beach-based Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to lease hangar space and operate an elite flight-training program. Authority members balked at $900,000 in hangar improvements required by the school.
HOMES ON THE RANGE
St. Augustine -- The century-old Ponce de Leon golf course closed after city officials decided not to spend $30 million to buy the property. Developer Chester Stokes says he'll build 750 homes and a village retail center on the site.