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Columbia County Observer

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Handicapped Accessibility Still an Issue On Reserve Flush Columbia County LSHA Campus & County Leased Elections Complex (Duval Place)

Press to operate door button

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Columbia County’s good ole’ boys are legends in North Florida and beyond. Handicapped accessibility is not only the law of the land in today's world; it is about common sense and human decency. Two public buildings in Columbia County have the same issue: the Lake Shore Hospital Authority HQ and the County’s almost $17,850 month leased sub-headquarters and home of the Supervisor of Elections, Tourist Development, and Economic Development.

The Supervisor of Elections Office complex, also known as Duval Place, houses the County 5's only Internet-wired and wired-for-sound conference room that seats more than ten. It is widely known for having one of the worst audio systems anywhere. The microphones are in the ceiling tiles, and nobody cares.

Overview of the ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990. The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places open to the general public. The law's purpose is to ensure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. See: Disability Rights Florida

Building One: LSHA Mega Headquarters
The Authority is sitting on $20 mil in reserves

In 2010, the old County jail in Lake City was converted into the Lake Shore Hospital Authority (LSHA) HQ. The LSHA would never release the total renovation cost, but it is estimated to be between $1.2 and $1.3 million, or about $1.7 million in 2024.

Questionable use of public funds is nothing new for the LSHA. See: Saggy Boobs, Droopy Eyes, Mommy Makeovers: What the legislature had in mind for the Lake Shore Hospital Authority?

Neither the people of Columbia County nor the Authority needed its now almost vacant HQ, but as now, flush with the people’s cash and disrespectful of it, the Governor’s appointed Board went ahead with the renovation, enabling the Authority to funnel money to some of the County’s favored ones and one Board member. In Columbia County, that is called business as usual.

In 2009, handicapped accessibility was an issue at the Authority. See: LSHA Berry nixes ADA compliance.

In 2010, a trumped up City building inspection seemed to give the Authority a clean bill of health. See: New LSHA boss refuses to comply with ADA wheel chair requirements.

Navigating in the street on the LSHA campus.
The Lake Shore Hospital Authority campus, in downtown Lake City, is not a safe place to be if one is handicapped, particularly after rainy weather. (photo: 20115)

By 2015, many of the issues at the Authority still had not been addressed by the Authority or the City of Lake City. See: LSHA's Berry and LC's Johnson Ignoring the Needs of the Handicapped on the Authority Campus

The entrance to the LSHA HQ difficult to open from a wheel chair.In 2018, North Florida legend and former Columbia County County Manager Dale Williams took over the management of the Authority. At that time, it had over 300 clients. Now it has 23.

Sometime after Manager Williams took over the Authority, your reporter, during a LSHA Board meeting, mentioned that there was no automatic handicapped accessible door opener on the entrance of the Authority. This is an issue for the wheelchair-bound and others.

The entrance of the Authority is almost impossible to open from a wheelchair. (see photo)

Manager Williams nodded and said he would take care of it. The Board did not object. Years later, there is still no automatic door opener on the front door of the Authority.

The Authority has approximately $20 million in the bank.

Building Two: Supervisor of Elections Building on US 90, Also Known as Duval Place
The County 5 is sitting on $47 mil in reserves

The SOE rebuilt entrance is not handicapped friendly
In 2021 the County 5 agreed improvements to the SOE Office which included a complete reconstruction of the front entrance. The cost to County taxpayers is over a-half-a-million dollars. The County thought it was too expensive to install automatic door openers for the handicapped.

The Supervisor of Elections (SOE) building is (or is in) the old Lake City Medical Center. The building was purchased on January 15, 1999, for a reported $1.2 million and put into a land trust (WSMDD). At that time, the County could have purchased the old medical center, but didn’t.

What is a Florida Land Trust & Why:

The Florida land trust is a legal way to protect the identity of a property’s true owner by creating a unique legal relationship between a trustee and a beneficiary. Property owners with large property holdings or who have name recognition with the public often seek ways to protect their anonymity. A land trust provides privacy of ownership, ease of management, asset separation, and easier transferability of ownership.

On January 28, 2000, thirteen days after the WSMDD purchase, the County 5 leased 7,236 sq. ft. from WSMDD for $30,078 ($2,506-month, $ 4.14 sq. ft.).

One of the principals of WSMDD is Guy Williams (the “W”), the brother of then County Manager and now LSHA Manager Dale Williams.

In October 2002, the County formed a Property Review Committee. In January 2003, the Committee met and identified the former Lake City Medical Center as a potential purchase.

During the January 2003 meeting, a discussion occurred regarding the old Lake City Medical Center (the building leased by the County from WSMDD). County Manager Dale Williams declared a conflict. However, according to the meeting minutes, he did not identify his brother Guy as the family member. Dale Williams then said, “The Medical Center property is probably not the easiest property on the list to occupy." Mr. Williams recommended another property.

On July 6, 2006, the County 5 once again leased additional square footage from WSMDD in the Old Lake City Medical Center. The rent went from $4.14 to $8 sq. ft. or $85,448 yr.

The item to extend the WSMDD lease and double the rent was buried in the evening’s consent agenda and was not mentioned during the meeting. The space was for the Supervisor of Elections. There were automatic door openers on the doors at that time.

Remember Dale Williams: The Medical Center property is probably not the easiest property on the list to occupy.

Dale Williams (2013)
Dale Williams addresses the County 5 (2013)

In 2013, WSMDD made two leases with the County for the old Lake City Medical Center, commencing on April 1, 2013, and ending at midnight on March 31, 2015.

One is for the SOE (10,681 sq. ft. at $8 sq.), and the other is for additional County office space (9,149 at $9 sq. ft.). The additional space was for the Red Cross, the IFUS Extension, Tourist Dev. Council, Suwannee. River Econ. Dev. Council, and Veterans Affairs.

The County was now paying $13,982.42 per month or $167,789 a year in rent for space owned by a bunch of Columbia County insiders (the Land Trust), one of whom is then County Manager Dale Williams’ brother. It is unknown how much the agencies under the County's lease agreement were reimbursing the County.

The automatic door is still at the SOE offices.

The lease agreements between WSMDD and the County maintained the status quo from 2013. There was some moving around. The agencies not directly under the County control moved out, and the County Economic Development Department (two people) moved in.

2019: Some Big Changes
Automatic Door Opener Still Available at the SOE

2019 was a big year for WSMDD and the Good Ole’ Boys at the County 5.

The proposed downtown Lake City municipal center.
In 2018, Commissioner Bucky Nash came up with a plan that didn't get much traction – a municipal plan that would have put Lake City/Columbia County downtown on the map. It would have all been on LSHA property, bought and paid for by all County taxpayers. For Columbia County's good ole' boys – not a good plan.

The County had previously borrowed $8,000,000 for a new administrative complex. Lake City had borrowed $4 million for a new admin. complex. For a short while, there was discussion of a joint project to build a joint, up-to-date state-of-the-art City/County municipal complex on the vacant land of the LSHA.

Columbia County's good ole' boys got in the way, and WSMDD ended up winning out in the end. The County's $8 mil went toward the new County Jail, and the City's $4 mil went into an unneeded firehouse on the west side of I-75.

Still, there was an automatic door opener for the handicapped at the SOE.

Economic Development entrance - issuesThe entrance to Economic Development lacks even a sign pointing to a handicapped accessible enterance. There is no signage large enough to read from the parking lot announcing that County Econ. Dev. is behind the door.

WSMDD was looking to lock the County taxpayers into ten more years of lease payments. Columbia County's good ole' boys sprang into action.

For the first time since 2000, the alteration paragraph of the lease changed. Through 2019, the County was responsible for all building alterations in its leased space. If the changes were structural, the County needed WSMDD’s permission before doing the work.

The change: one little line. The 2019 lease stated that any structural changes could only be performed by WSMDD’s chosen contractor, O’Neal Construction, with the caveat that the County (taxpayers) had to pay for them.

The improvements weren’t structural, although a structural post or two may have been hidden in the walls.

Then County Manager Ben Scott tasked TDC Director Paula Vann to design the space, which she was not qualified to do. The Econ. Dev. Dept. was moved into a space between the SOE and TDC. A new TDC entrance was designed and built on the west end of the building with a new handicapped ramp and parking and no automatic handicapped door opener.

The County, which was required to go out to bid on the redesigned construction, didn't, and paid O'Neal directly, although the County did not hire him. The County never came clean with the amount it paid, but it is believed the O’Neil renovation was over $1 million.

The reconstructed Tourist Development entrance -- sans auto door opener.
A one-million-dollar-plus renovation to the westside of Duval Place (Tourist Development) left the doors without an auto-opener. Not very friendly to tourists needing assistance. There is no sinage on the building visible from the street or the main parking lot announcing that County Tourist Development is there.

The handicapped automatic door opener was still on the SOE door. None was installed at the new entrance of the TDC. No one complained. The entrance to Economic Development was moderately handicapped accessible and had no signs pointing to a handicapped accessible entrance.

2021:  WSMDD – 1st County Lease Modification

On October 28, 2021, Clinton F. Dicks, Jr., one of the Ds in the WSMDD Land Trust, the owners of the Duval Place building, sent a letter to County Manager David Kraus, writing that the planned renovation to the SOE (Supervisor of Elections) Office would be $413,277. The County would contribute $50k upfront from a state grant, and the balance of $363,277 would be added to the rent by adding $4 sq. ft. to the remainder of the lease.

O’Neil Contracting included a scope of work, absent any word of an automatic door opener for any of the entrances into County leased offices in Duval Place.

In a memo (2021-11-15) to the County 5, County Attorney Foreman recommended approval of the amended lease and the rent increase, writing that this is what County Manager Kraus wanted to do.

Mr. Foreman did not mention County Manager Kraus by name; instead calling him “the current county manager.”

County Manager Kraus’s arrangement cost County (taxpayers) $146,773 in interest, i.e., payback on the $363,277 is $510,000 (100 months at $5,100 at a simple interest rate of 40%) – A good deal for WSMDD; not such a good deal for County taxpayers.

A Rent Increase Based on Ten Years of CPI Increases

At midnight, March 31, 2030, after spending millions in lease payments, should the County 5 wish to renew its lease for five more years with WSMDD, the County will have to pay an “increase according to the Consumer Price Index (“CPI") calculated from the lease commencement date through the anniversary date (10 years).”

The lease does not define the rent increase as an average of the CPI, and appears to be a cumulative increase over ten years.

The 2021 lease is mislabeled as the “Seconded Amendment to Lease Agreement.” It is the first amendment. The effective date of the lease is blank. The signature page has funky dates, and Clerk of the Court Swisher's undated attestation of County 5 Chairman Rocky Ford’s signature on an undated page all by itself would not pass muster at your local bank.

WSMDD subjects the $510,000 loan repayment for the new front of the SOE office to the change in the CPI.

Epilogue: The Automatic Door Opener at the SOE Disappears. "It was too expensive."

After spending millions in rent and what will be over $1.5 million in renovations, the County 5, which professes to love veterans, the FFA, the DOT, and just about every organization that comes in front of it, thought automatic door openers were too expensive for the handicapped and didn't install them.

According to County Manager Kraus, recently there was a meeting to discuss the lack of automatic doors at the TDC. The meeting appeared to be called only after your reporter was seen taking photos.

The Governor’s LSHA Board and Manager Dale Williams: ditto, except for the recent meeting.

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