Referendum would limit High Springs' borrowing unless voters approve future loans
Published: Friday, October 12, 2012 at 3:09 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, October 12, 2012 at 3:09 p.m.
In High Springs, the Nov. 6 ballot includes a proposed amendment to the city charter capping the amount the city could borrow in a single bond issue or loan at $1 million — unless there is supermajority approval of the City Commission and approval of the voters in a referendum.
An active lawsuit seeks to halt the referendum or have the amendment declared null and void. The legal challenge alleges the commission majority did not follow policy in the process leading up to the 3-2 approval on July 31 of the ordinance that put the referendum on the ballot.
Mayor Dean Davis and Commissioners Bob Barnas and Linda Clark Gestrin support the referendum, while Commissioners Scott Jamison and Sue Weller voted against it.
The differences of opinion between the two sides were on display as they debated the issue during a July 17 emergency meeting that Barnas called in order to get the ordinance advertised in time for two subsequent public hearings.
Barnas pointed to the city's strained financial situation and said taking on any further debt could only exacerbate it.
"It just puts the brakes on spending and protects the taxpayer," he said of the proposed amendment.
Currently, High Springs, a city of approximately 5,350 residents, owes about $8.5 million for financing the construction of its sewer system. The three commissioners who supported the referendum have pointed to that sewer system as a financial burden prior commissioners put on the city.
Jamison, on other hand, said he believed the referendum to limit borrowing was intended to prevent build-out of the full sewer system.
"My personal opinion, this is there only to curtail the sewer — to stop further expansion of the sewer system," he said during the debate at the July meeting.
Weller said she felt the borrowing limit could prevent or delay road projects, repair work to the water system and other infrastructure projects. She said she felt commissioners were abdicating some of their responsibility through the proposed amendment.
"In my opinion, that's what we're here for, to make these decisions on those types of big issues," she said.
Filed by city resident Ross Ambrose, the lawsuit alleges, among other things, that the two days between the emergency meeting of July 17 and the first public hearing on the ordinance to schedule the referendum on July 19 did not serve as sufficient public notice.
It also alleges that, at the second hearing on July 31, the City Commission was required to readvertise the ordinance instead of modifying and approving an alternate version of it that increased the borrowing limit from $1 million to $2 million.
The suit alleges that, when the city attorney informed commissioners after that vote that he believed the modified ordinance did indeed have to be readvertised, the majority violated policy by approving an ordinance with the original $1 million cap that day instead of at a future meeting.
A hearing in the case is scheduled for Oct. 25. The city seeks dismissal. Ambrose seeks an emergency injunction to bar the referendum, which is already on printed ballots, from moving forward.