Legislators talk of dissolving city of Hampton
Published: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 at 11:03 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 at 11:03 p.m.
In light of a state audit, some Florida lawmakers are looking to dissolve the one-square-mile city of Hampton, which as of Tuesday evening has a staff of zero.
Last week, the city of roughly 500 residents in southern Bradford County employed a full-time staff of three people — City Clerk Christina Mobley, Chief of Police John Hodges and Maintenance Operator Adam Hall, the son of former City Clerk Jane Hall and City Council member Charles Hall — but all three had resigned by the time the City Council convened at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
A little more than 20 people, including Bradford County Sheriff Gordon Smith, came to the meeting. Hampton Mayor Barry Moore was suspended from office in November after he was arrested for allegedly selling oxycodone, but residents didn't really bring him up Tuesday evening. Their focus, as well as the council's, was on the problems now looming over Hampton.
The city government's troubles are numerous and wide-ranging, according to the audit conducted by the Florida Auditor General's Office, the final version of which was released last week. The audit lists 31 findings, including more than $27,000 in questionable expenditures, at least $11,354 in uncollected, unbilled water fund revenue, and inadequate maintenance of public records, including missing receipts.
The council decided Tuesday to hand over the city government's keys to council member Bill Goodge, a sergeant at the Bradford County Jail.
City Hall will be closed during business hours because no one works there anymore. Acting Mayor Myrtice McCullough told residents the city won't have the money to hire anyone new since the state's Joint Legislative Auditing Committee, which met on Monday, has called for the city to be barred from receiving certain state funds amounting to about $18,000 a year.
Elected officials on the committee also called for the city to be dissolved as well as for a criminal investigation.
Beyond the state funding that may be withheld from the city, the Hampton government gets revenue from the bills paid by city water customers, McCullough told The Sun after Tuesday's meeting. But without any staff, it can't collect on those bills.
The city can't bring in money from traffic citations because it no longer has a police department now that the police chief has resigned, she said, although the city hasn't received much money from such citations in a while. And Hampton's ad valorem tax revenue adds less than $3,000 to the city coffer.
The Sheriff's Office will continue to respond to calls in the Hampton community as it has for some time now, Smith assured everyone at the meeting.
McCullough said the city hadn't gotten formal word from the state on when it might be dissolved, although state Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, told The Sun earlier Tuesday that he and state Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, both of whom represent Bradford County, will formally pursue dissolving the city in the 2015 legislative session.
If dissolved, the city would become part of unincorporated Bradford County.
"The unwinding of this town needs to be a thoughtful process that's done in a very orderly fashion," Bradley said.
The audit revealed things in Hampton were worse than he had imagined, Bradley said.
"Yesterday was an opportunity to listen to the auditor general's presentation of the audit, and it was like something out of a Southern gothic novel. You can't make this stuff up," he said. "I'm really struggling to find a reason the town should exist."
At Tuesday's City Council meeting, residents were candid about their take on the city's troubles.
A white-haired woman in the front row asked how no one saw something was wrong in the city when the problems cited in the audit date back to 2009. She and others pointed to financial mismanagement within the government as the root of the monetary bind the city is in.
"That's the problem. That's why they don't have any money — because everybody was taking it," the woman said.
Another woman agreed, saying the city's money went into somebody else's pocket.
The city police department, with its past reputation for running a speed trap along a 1,260-foot stretch of U.S. 301 that brought in thousands upon thousands of dollars in speeding fines, was also much discussed at Monday's auditing committee meeting and at Tuesday's City Council meeting.
One man said the use of city police cars for personal reasons had wasted taxpayer money.
"That's our tax dollars riding up and down the road for nothing," he said.
Sheriff Smith said that even with the money the police department brought in through traffic citations, it was still overspending.
In an interview with The Sun on Tuesday, Smith said he too was surprised by the breadth of the audit's findings.
"I was in disbelief reading over it and thought maybe they'd find a few things when the audit came, but in my wildest imagination (I) never dreamed it would be that atrocious," the sheriff said. "It's a shame. I mean, it kind of makes Chicago and Al Capone look like they were a group of Cub Scouts."
People at Tuesday's meeting said they were concerned about how the city water system would fare without someone to oversee it. One man said Bradford County government should manage the water system so it's in a professional's hands, while a couple of people suggested they or other residents could volunteer their time to do it – an offer City Attorney John E. Maines IV, who works for the city on a contractual basis but told The Sun he isn't involved in its day-to-day operation, said was generous but would be a liability.
A couple of people said they were worried new management of the city's water system by the county or another entity would lead to higher water rates that a lot of residents can't afford.
"That's the American way. Rich get richer and the poor get poorer," one man said.
"Yeah, but ain't nobody in this town's rich," a woman concerned about higher rates shot back.
Smith said the state's main concern is ensuring city residents have viable drinking water and people in Tallahassee are looking into how to get someone to maintain the water system.
One resident did point out that this situation didn't happen overnight and the council members have a lot on their shoulders. "I feel like we're attacking you and we don't mean to do that," she said.
McCullough told The Sun after the meeting that the city may formally ask for a state receiver to assist the city if necessary.
Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or email@example.com.
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