Finances: Digging Out- Northeast- Aug. 2003
Several months ago, the retired teacher led a recall campaign that ousted longtime councilman and power broker Jack Sikes -- and elected Combs. Sikes' defeat, combined with the election of a new mayor last fall and the firing of the city worker at the center of Callahan's financial scandal, has many locals hoping for a new era of openness and accountability in this Nassau County town.
"For years there has been a lot of fussing and fighting and feuding going on," Combs says. Now, the council "is kind of quiet, tending to business. We are working hard to dig ourselves out of the mess we got into."
The digging began in earnest last November when state auditors convened a town meeting to announce the results of a six-month investigation into the town's finances. The report mostly analyzed how former building and zoning administrator Bobbi Boone handled $6.5 million in grants the state gave the town over an eight-year period.
The grants, which paid for a fire station, low-income housing, and drainage and park improvements, among other things, represented a windfall for a municipality with a population of 962 and an annual operating budget of about $100,000.
Combs says the size and breadth of the auditors' allegations stunned locals. Auditors said Boone had been overpaid $76,000 in grant commissions, collected another $3,000 for an unexplained grant and had been improperly reimbursed for thousands of dollars in personal travel and cell phone expenses.
The report also uncovered questionable practices throughout town hall, including undocumented building inspections, improperly signed checks and more than $1.2 million in no-bid contracts.
In April, the State Attorney's Office charged Boone with four counts of grand theft. Boone denies any wrongdoing and is suing Callahan for $92,633 in commissions she claims the town failed to pay.
Combs says the November auditors' meeting -- held, ironically, in the fire station Boone helped build -- stirred the populace to action. Combs and other frustrated residents started a campaign to recall Sikes, a former council president who refused to fire Boone and, they felt, stood in the way of reform.
"The town was in an uproar, and we felt we had to take some action," says Combs. "When the recall petition came around, the people were ready to sign." In April, Sikes lost his seat, with 85% voting for his removal.
While Combs says a handful of local officials bear ultimate responsibility for Callahan's embarrassment, the state shares some of the blame, he says. State officials neglected to supervise how the money was spent until it was too late, Combs says. "Millions of dollars at stake, and there was one person (Boone) making all the
decisions. How did that happen?" Combs asks.
IN THE NEWS
Gainesville -- Developers say they will break ground on a 230,000-sq.-ft. commercial/ residential complex sometime next year. The four-story, $40-million building at west University Avenue and N.W. 13th Street will include retail shops, bars and restaurants along with 60 studio apartments.
Three construction projects -- a subdivision, roadway improvement and drainage initiative -- have been cited for polluting Hogtown Creek. The violations come several months after Alachua County commissioners adopted tougher standards to protect area waterways.
Jacksonville -- Recently announced job cuts: CSX Transportation will eliminate up to 200 data-entry jobs at its Southside office; Metris Cos. closed its Credit Card Services call center, cutting more than 120 positions; and St. Vincent's Medical Center did away with 55 administrative support and clerical service positions.
The City Council awarded Vestcor more than $20 million in taxpayer-financed loans and grants to renovate the historic Roosevelt Hotel and turn it into a 100-unit apartment complex.
XLO Group, a Cleveland-based auto parts manufacturer, is opening a 30,000-sq.-ft. plant near J. Turner Butler Boulevard. The facility will employ 75 and make plastic door panels for Ford, General Motors, Honda, Mazda and Toyota vehicles.
Jeffrey Crowe, chairman and chief executive officer of Landstar System, was elected to a one-year term as chairman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
USF Logistics Services has started a Jacksonville-based Ocean Services division to handle domestic ocean freight forwarding. Ocean Services will consolidate freight in major cities and ports for shipment to U.S. destinations, including Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Hawaii and Guam.
The Department of Transportation has chosen Miami-based contractor MasTec North America and engineering consultant PBS&J of Orlando to install an intelligent transportation system along a section of I-95. The system, which uses roadway cameras to spot traffic problems and signs to warn motorists, will be installed along a 15-mile section of I-95 between the Fuller Warren Bridge and Greenland Road.
Members of the Downtown Development Authority want their own staff and more decision-making power. The DDA, an independent authority until 1996, is one of 10 economic development agencies run by the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission. Officials worry the commission's sometimes slow-moving bureaucracy has made the DDA less effective.
Jacksonville Beach -- After repeated permitting delays, construction was set to begin on a $3.5-million oceanfront fishing pier. The 1,300-foot pier at Fourth Avenue North will replace one that was severely damaged during Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
Mayport -- The Jacksonville City Council rejected a land-use change that would have allowed construction of a Wal-Mart Supercenter on Mayport Road.
Ocala -- CLM Workforce Connection closed four regional One Stop Career Centers after it lost a $900,000 federal grant. CLM manages the state's workforce development initiative in Citrus, Levy and Marion counties.
A new operator is drawing capacity crowds at the Ocala Drive-In Theater. Last summer, the theater was showing second-run films and drawing less than 100 cars per weekend. Now, more than 600 cars a night are packing in for the drive-in's lineup of first-run features.
Palm Valley -- St. Johns County commissioners approved the rezoning of 3.1 acres at C.R. 210 and Mickler Road, clearing the way for construction of a 55,000-sq.-ft. Publix shopping center.
Ponte Vedra Beach -- Medical Development International, a provider of health services to federal prisons and private correctional firms, will receive $25,000 in St. Johns County incentives to move its 50-employee headquarters from Lansdowne, Va. The county package qualifies the company for an additional $100,000 in state incentives.
Cygnet Private Bank, a privately owned bank targeting high net worth individuals, is being organized by a group of local businessmen. Guy Nix, former president and CEO of Ponte Vedra National Bank and executive vice president of SunTrust Bank, North Florida, will serve as Cygnet's first president and CEO.
St. Augustine -- The Castillo de San Marcos, the centuries-old bayfront fort and national monument, could soon have a modern visitors center. The proposed $8.2-million project is outlined in legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. John Mica.
St. Johns County -- Julington Creek Plantation is the fastest-growing subdivision in northeast Florida, with 702 annual housing starts, according to a Metrostudy survey.
LUMBERING TO CUBA
JACKSONVILLE -- Lanahan Lumber Co. shipped 25 containers of southern yellow pine to Havana, becoming the first American company to sell wood to Cuba since 1958. Company executives say they could deliver as many as 800 containers of lumber to the communist country over the next year.