The city of High Springs has a new mayor and vice mayor to guide the City Commission through the next fiscal year after two votes on Thursday.
Thursday’s meeting also included the swearing-in ceremony for new commissioners Andrew Miller and Steve Tapanes. Voters selected the two commissioners over the incumbents on Nov. 7.
With Miller and Tapanes seated, the new commission unanimously selected Commissioner Katherine Weitz as mayor and Commissioner Tristan Grunder as vice mayor. At the same meeting, the city officially closed the 2022-2023 City Commission session and opened the 2023-2024 session.
“This journey has been very rewarding,” Miller said from the dais. “I thought I knew a lot of people in High Springs, but I found out that I haven’t known half of them.”
After the meeting, city manager Ashley Stathatos submitted a resignation letter. Her last day with the city will be Feb. 29 if the City Commission sees fit. In the letter, she said she would stay on for another month as the city transitions if desired.
The city also lacks an assistant city manager after Bruce Gillingham resigned in October. The City Commission honored his time as fire chief and assistant city manager at the Thursday meeting.
Over half of Thursday’s meeting centered on water, sewer and solid waste rates. City staff is proposing a rate increase of around 14.6% for the average water and sewer bill.
The reserve funds for all three services have gone dry.
Stathatos said the city hasn’t kept up with rate increases as proposed in a 2021 study by the Florida Rural Water Association.
In addition to not having the rates needed according to the study, the city has been hit hard by inflation, seeing a 35% increase in chemicals used to treat water, a 14% increase in its contribution to the Florida Retirement Fund and a more than 30% increase in insurance.
She said the city held off in hopes of not needing as large of a rate increase as new development started paying rates and advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) began cutting down on wasted water.
However, AMI has been delayed by supply chain issues and new development hasn’t come as fast as expected.
The new rates, if passed, also reduce the amount of money sent from the three utility funds to the general government budget in a transfer. With a reduced transfer, the general government side will also need to look at cuts.
Stathatos said an even higher rate without a reduction in transfers would make the city’s position stronger, preventing the city from making programmatic cuts.
“If something happens and you don’t have reserves, it’s going to impact your borrowing capacity even,” Stathatos said on Thursday.
The commission tabled the item until Nov. 28.
In that time, Stathatos also plans to negotiate with the city’s new solid waste provider. Waste Pro started in High Springs in May. However, the three commissioners who approved the new provider said they remembered being told that Waste Pro would charge the same rates as the previous provider until the end of the fiscal year.
However, when the contract started in May, the cost was $70,000 more than the previous provider per month, adding up to $350,000 more by the end of the fiscal year. That overage took out the last of the city’s reserves for solid waste.
Stathatos and the city’s finance director said raising rates will be necessary and holding off now could mean a larger jump later. Even with staff-recommended rate increases, the High Springs rates for water and sewer will remain below the recommendations given by the Florida Rural Water Association.