Pizza restaurant could rescue city's block-grant status


Published: Tuesday, November 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, November 1, 2005 at 12:35 a.m.
BRONSON - A groundbreaking planned for this morning will do more than mark the start of construction on the town's first-ever restaurant franchise. It will also be a visible sign to federal officials that the small Levy County town is serious about helping itself recover from a municipal embezzlement case still under federal investigation.
The 11:30 a.m. groundbreaking across from the Dollar General store on Alt. U.S. 27 is for a Hungry Howie's pizza franchise owned by Levy County native Ryan Bell. He already owns several other Hungry Howie franchises as well as a catering business and a Chiefland restaurant.
If Bell can get the building up and the business opened within three to six months while creating at least 15 new jobs, Bronson will continue to be eligible for federally funded Community Development Block Grants. The town has already been granted four extensions, each six months long, according to Mayor Beatrice Mongo. She said that if the pizza business does not get off the ground within a few months, the town faces a possible 10-year ban on applying for federal money and could be required to pay back a $500,000 grant that has already been spent building a sewer system.
Bronson's block grant is contingent on the creation of a minimum 15 new jobs in a new business.
The groundbreaking for a pizza business that may solve the town's financial woes will take place on the same property where suspicions were first raised that led to the embezzlement case.
The 2.34-acre site where Bell will build his pizza franchise is the same property where former Mayor Jamie Griffin planned to build a restaurant and where he had some building supplies delivered. Shortly after first-term town council member Aaron Edmondson took office in 2003, he noticed new metal trusses on the restaurant site that appeared to match the description of $18,000 worth of metal trusses the town had paid for but had no projects to use them on.
One discovery led to another and soon the Florida Department of Law Enforcement was investigating the apparent embezzlement of more than $200,000 from the town's various accounts.
Griffin and former Town Clerk June Greenlee were charged in the case and both entered plea agreements. Griffin was sentenced to a year in prison while Greenlee was sentenced to three years of administrative probation.
While the criminal cases were working their way through the court system, state officials who administer the block grants were granting extensions to the town as officials tried to comply with the requirements. While Griffin was mayor, he signed documents committing the town to attracting a new business that would create 15 new jobs in return for the sewer grant. The embezzlement case left the town with no money to pay back the grant and scrambling to find a new business. At least three previous serious inquiries were unworkable for different reasons.
While Bell works to get his restaurant up and running, town officials will be waiting to hear from federal investigators about the latest criminal investigation into the missing money. The former mayor and clerk have been convicted in state court, but if federal investigators determine that federal laws appear to have been broken, both officials and others can be prosecuted in federal court. A week ago, the town turned over its financial records for the past five years to a federal grand jury. Town officials said federal investigators told them they plan to scrutinize all of the transactions made with town money and the roles that various people played in the spending, a process that may take months.
Karen Voyles can be reached at (352) 486-5058 or voylesk@gvillesun.com.

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