A look back at some of the top stories and photos of the past year
By LEGION TAYLOR
BRAD HARVEY GETS 12 1/2 YEARS
Brad Harvey, the former Wakulla County Property Appraiser, was convicted on embezzling charges, being sentenced to 12 1/2 years in prison and 17 1/2 years of probation once he gets out.
This comes after a months-long investigation into his theft of more than $200,000 during the 3 years he was in office. This theft came in the form of $176,000 of overpayments to himself, and $26,000 of charges on the office credit card that were personal expenses. Some of the money was spent on outfitting a hunting truck, and taking his family on a cruise shortly after his daughter graduated from high school.
“Brad Harvey was elected by the people of Wakulla County to a position of trust,” Judge Smith said at Harvey’s September 7th sentencing. The judge then went through the definition of an “organized scheme to defraud.” Noting that Harvey had written himself dozens of paychecks to overpay himself, the judge commented, “This was not a one-time lapse of judgment, this was a systematic organized scheme to defraud with some effort to escape detection or avoid detection.”
Harvey justified the overpayments by pointing to a $30,000 supplement he was paid for his work on the county’s Fire and Solid Waste tax rolls which he recieved during his time as Chief Deputy under then-Property Appraiser Donnie Sparkman.
According to Wakulla Chief Prosecutor Andrew Deneen, who prosecuted the case, Harvey wasn’t entitled to the bonus as property appraiser, as he went outside his office and hired a consultant to do the work. Even then, the county paid $30,000 a year for the additional work, but Harvey paid himself more than $76,000.
He was originally investigated after he failed to deposit money from a Rotary Club of Wakulla fundraiser back in 2018.
In 2020, Harvey was arrested and booked at the Wakulla County Jail, and Gov. DeSantis removed him from office the same day.
Several months ago, unrelated to the criminal case, the state Ethics Commission ordered Harvey to pay a civil penalty of $40,000 in addition to restitution of $209,000 to Wakulla County for ethics violations related to the overpayments.
REJECTS FOREIGN TEACHERS
At the School Board meeting on January 17th, the agenda included consideration of a contract with TPG – an Orlando-based company that vets and coordinates cultural exchanges for teachers. At the time of the meeting, there were 28 vacant teaching positions in Wakulla County Schools, and this contract would be a way to fill one or two much-needed positions, specifically in the High School’s Math department. Six citizens at the meeting spoke out against it, concerned about the high cost of these new personnel or that they wouldn’t be able to speak English, although district staff disputed these claims.
CFO Randy Beach and HR Director Lori Sandgren argued that because the district had already budgeted for the 28 vacant positions, and these international teachers wouldn’t need to be provided with retirement and social security, it would save the district money, rather than cost extra. However, members of the school board such as Laura Lawhon expressed that there are likely better “tools in the toolbox” when it comes to battling the teacher shortage. Some suggested ideas were to address the high cost of insurance, to help retain teachers in the county, or helping cover costs for parapros to get their teaching certificates. Superintendent Pearce was worried that these ideas would take too long to fix the shortage, and was in favor of the proposal. The motion failed, after not recieving a second.
SOPCHOPPY GROCERY CLOSES
On Friday, March 17th, Sopchoppy Grocery closed its doors forever.
There had been rumors that the owners Dewayne and Beth McClain had found a buyer who would continue the grocery, but it didn’t happen.
Originally named RNL Trading Co., the store opened at that location in 1926, operated by the Rodenberry family. It was later taken over by the Langston Family, until the McClains began to run it, which they did for over 30 years.
After 97 years open, it was one of the oldest continually operated businesses in Wakulla County.
COUNTY CONSIDERS SPRINGS PROTECTION
On Monday, May 1st, the county commission moved forward with a springs protection ordinance to safeguard underground water systems from damage that development might do to them. This comes as a result of the proposed gas station at the intersection of Bloxham Cutoff and Highway 319, which would have been on top of Chip’s Hole cave, which feeds into Wakulla Springs.
The proposed ordinance would update the current ordinance, which was approved in 1994, and would require more site-specific studies – such as three 30-foot ground borings for each 5,000 square feet, rather than one 15-foot boring for the area. These changes come after consultation with experts such as Tom Lewis, a geologist with Terracon Consultants.
It would also require that geologic data be reviewed by a third party prior to construction. What it doesn’t include is requirements for a setback from underground caverns, because according to county leadership such as County Administrator David Edwards, it’s incredibly difficult to get reliable data about a cavern’s location, which makes setbacks impossible to concretely establish.
The commission voted to move forward with it 4-1, with the only dissenting vote coming from Commissioner Chuck Hess, who did not believe that the proposal was strict enough.
HUGE CROWD AT MEETING ON GAS STATION
In early January, two divers, Steve Cox and Blake Wilson discovered a tunnel that links Chip’s Hole, a sinkhole north of Bloxham Cutoff near Highway 319, with Wakulla Springs.
The two divers were looking for the connection as part of the Wakulla Karst Plain Project, which seeks to map the underground caverns and waterways that exist underneath Wakulla County.
At the county commission meeting on August 7th, more than 200 people were present to express their discontent with the proposed gas station, due to its location at the corner of Bloxham Cutoff and Highway 319, which is over of the Chip’s Hole Cave system, meaning that chemicals from the station could potentially leech into the groundwater, which would flow into Wakulla Springs via the caves underneath.
Around 150 people were left outside in the heat, as the county commission chambers couldn’t fit everyone.
This led into heated debates over how best to protect the springs, whether to do that by setbacks or having above-ground gas tanks, or if it would be best to simply bar the gas station from being constructed at all.
Because of the number of people outside commission chambers in the extreme heat, the county commission unanimously voted to postpone the meeting.
A resolution was eventually reached to protect the caves and Wakulla Springs, which was to have Conservation Florida buy the parcel of land there. Then it could be turned into a welcome center or a park with trails, which keeps the cave system safe from potentially damaging development. The proposed gas station would then be moved to the south side of the same intersection, where no caves have been found, allowing the development to still occur, though the proposal was pulled Southwest Georgia Oil Company shortly after the meeting in August.
Judge Brian Miller is sworn-in
Wakulla Circuit Judge J. Layne Smith administers the oath of office to new Wakulla County Judge Brian Miller as Miller’s wife and daughter, Kelly and Elliot, look on, at a judicial investiture ceremony on Feb. 10. Miller was elected after County Judge Jill Walker retired after serving 32 years on the bench. (Photo by William Snowden)
$307 MILLION ERROR
In October, the Property Appraiser’s office found a massive overvaluation of a 50×100 foot vacant lot, putting its value at $307 million, rather than its actual taxable value of $7,500.
The error came about when an employee multiplied the assessed value of the land ($7,500) by its value of $41,000 and came up with a $307,500,000 total value. It was caught by Wakulla County Tax Collector Lisa Craze after it had slipped through both the property appraiser’s office and the State Department of Revenue when it went there for approval.
This error was not caught until after both the county and the school system had already made and approved their budgets for this fiscal year, leaving a hole of $1.6 million in the school’s budget, and a hole of $2.4 million in the county’s budget. Both the county government and the school district were forced to scramble for a solution, to keep things running as smoothly as possible.
“Thank God we have reserves,” said County Administrator David Edwards. His plan to deal with the error is to dip into the county’s reserves for about $1.2 million, to delay hiring any new positions for at least six months, and potentially using money in the Revenue Stabilization Fund – the fund created years ago to cover shortfalls in the old jail-bed program.
Superintendent of Schools Bobby Pearce said that the school district is entitled to state funds to cover the budget error. The real worry is that this error will affect the negotiations over salary with the teacher’s union, as the funds that could have been set aside for raises are no longer available in the same magnitude.
ELECTION SUIT OVER
The lawsuit over the 2020 Property Appraiser election was resolved in July, finding that Ed Brimner was properly elected, defeating Colby Sparkman by only four votes.
Sparkman’s lawsuit was based on the treatment of 12 ballots out of the 9,104 ballots cast in the election. Those 12 ballots had been rejected by the canvassing board because they were mail-in and the signature on the ballot did not match the signature on file. Sparkman’s attorney argued that those ballots could not be cured due to misconduct by the Supervisor of Elections, such as not telling voters whose ballots were rejected and the correct amount of time they had to cure the problem.
Judge Flury, who presided over the case, said “No evidence has been presented that shows the precluded ballots favored any particular candidate, factually, the mathematical probablity of a change in the result here is nonexistent.”
Attorneys representing Brimner and the canvassing board acknowledged that there were errors made, but argued that there was no fraud, and no intention of helping one candidate over another. The judge agreed: “There is no evidence to suggest that there was an ulterior nefarious motive that actually drove the canvassing board’s decision. There is no reason to overturn the will of the people as expressed in the election results presented.”
Sparkman did, however, win his wrongful termination lawsuit, which came about as a result of Sparkman being fired from his position of Deputy Property Appraiser by Brimner once Brimner had replaced Brad Harvey. Harvey was removed from office in 2018 after being arrested for embezzlement, and Brimner had been appointed to replace him before an election was held.
Hurricane Idalia Hits
St. Marks received high waters in the streets. Riverside Café flooded again, but Stan West, owner of Riverside Café was grateful that it has not gotten into his kitchen equipment. Brett Shields of Shields Marina says that the water was not brackish. Both Shields and West have weathered these storms many times before. “It is what it is, and we move on,” West says. “When the water goes down we will clean, disinfect and hopefully reopen on Friday.” (Photos by Lynda Kinsey)
CONCERN ABOUT RATE
At the September meeting of the St. Marks City a group of citizens led by Tim Roach expressed their concerns over a 75% increase on the cost of water services.
The City Commissioners voted to raise the cost by that much at the August regular meeting, to compensate for several years where the price of the water service did not increase at all, and to raise more money for the city to use. Prior to the meeting, citizens met at Bo Lynn’s Grocery to discuss concerns about the increase, and ways to address it, which were compiled and presented by Roach at the City Commission meeting the next day. Ideas such as selling some of the city’s property, such as the old Seminole Refinery, or getting better about collecting fees at the boat ramp were suggested as alternatives to the price hike.
At the meeting, Roach and others also asked for there to be a workshop scheduled, so that ideas could be brainstormed and a better solution could be reached. Some citizens also raised concers about a percieved lack of communication between the city governement and the residents of St. Marks, as many felt blindsided by the rate increase. The city commissioners agreed to work on that, including by doing things such as putting notices of such changes at the local post office, where many people could see it.