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Winter Springs investigation underway

The Winter Springs City Commission made history Monday night when they transformed the dias into a quasi courtroom, questioning former city staff to determine what they knew about issues related to an inoperable water reuse facility near Lake Jesup and what led to the city’s overuse of its allotted water capacity.

The Commission invoked its investigative powers during a meeting on July 12, subpoenaing 11 former city commissioners, engineers and staff. Two of those individuals attended the special meeting on Monday: former City Manager Kevin Smith and former Community Development Director Brian Fields. The rest of subpoenaed individuals were either represented by their attorneys, had to schedule a different time for a hearing or hadn’t been served their subpoena.

When questioned, Smith said that during his tenure, there were no failures at the $3.2 million water reuse facility except for clogs in the filtration system from “murky” Lake Jesup, where the plant pulls its water.

“No professional engineer or other appropriately qualified personnel ever advised me that the plant did not work. It was my understanding that the plant did work,” Smith said. “If there were any pertinent problems within the city of any type during my tenure, I would have done my best to address them.”

He added that the plant was designed to decrease the amount of water pulled from the Florida aquifer, offsetting that by pulling water from Lake Jesup, and therefore was only needed one month per year — May, meaning that in eight years, it was only operational for eight months.

“But it worked,” he said. “The fact that it never worked, that’s not true.”

The plant, which came online in 2013, was designed to deliver 1 million gallons of irrigation water to the city per day. Winter Springs Director of Public Works and Utilities Jason Norberg said it has not operated as designed since it was built and it is not currently operational. The city is currently evaluating its future viability.

Smith was also questioned about what he knew about the city exceeding its Consumptive Use Permit, issued by the St. Johns River Water Management District to regulate the amount of water withdrawn from the ground or surface. The city exceeded its CUP by approximately 100 million gallons last year, resulting in Winter Springs’ declaration of a water emergency. Smith said that city staff carefully tracked the water use as development projects came before the commission to avoid exceeding its CUP.

Commissioner Kevin Cannon said that unless the city figures out how to manage its water, many millions of dollars worth of development projects that want to come into the city are at stake.

“We’re over the CUP, and we’ve got a bunch more projects coming out of the ground,” he said.

Norberg said preliminary evaluations show that the CUP will be exceeded again in 2021.

The Commission subpoenaed Kip Lockuff, public works director from 1991 to 2017, but no other public works directors hired after his tenure were subpoenaed. After Lockuff, Lena Rivera took over, through September 2020. Then Dale Smith was director until August 2021. Jason Norberg is the current director. Mayor Kevin McCann said perhaps high staff turnover has played a role in the city’s utility issues.

There will be more special meetings scheduled to question the other subpoenaed individuals and Cannon said more people could be added to the subpoena list.

“This is just round one,” he said.

The attorneys present questioned the proceedings, offering that a more informal meeting would be more productive. Smith agreed, saying, “I’d like to be helpful. Anybody who wants to give me a call, invite me to lunch, I’m more than happy to provide what I can.”

But some of the citizens who spoke at the meeting said they were happy the questioning was done in the public’s view.

“The residents that put in the $3.5 million have a right to know,” Winter Springs resident Art Gallo said. “I think this subpoena is one way to get the truth and do it in the open.”

But others were unhappy with the investigatory process.

“Why was this process initiated this way? As you can see, It puts everyone in a defensive position,” former Winter Springs Mayor Paul Partyka said. “Furthermore, why now? If there was an issue, this could have been handled way before this. It’s never too late to change things. Why not retract all the subpoenas and have a workshop?”

McCann said he was not satisfied with the investigation results so far.

“I think at the end of the day, we’re still over our CUP and our plant is not working. That’s a fact. Our residents who paid those water bills paid for something that never worked and it was never rectified,” he said. “These wastewater problems keep me up at night.”

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