I am the Holley Navarre Water System board director who voted against hiring Rob Williamson as CEO of the utility. My friends and family keep asking me, “why don’t you just quit? You have nothing to gain and nothing is going to change.” My answer is because this is my town. I got my first job out of college in Navarre in 1992 and have been here since then. We had a gas station at Highways 98 and 87, Winn Dixie and McDonalds. It was a small town with good, honest people. That’s why I decided this is where I wanted to be.
Before you read this, know that the employees of HNWS are some of the most dedicated people I know. Some of the work they do amazes me, and I would never want anyone to think I have anything but love for the working people at HNWS, it is a family and I am glad they let me have a little piece of it.
I was the floating member for HNWS on Fairpoint’s board in 2012, I must have done something right because once that year was up Gulf Breeze made me their representative for 2013. I first got elected (if you can call it that) to the HNWS board of directors in 2014. During the first couple years on the board before Ken Walker, the former GM, retired. It was during that time that I learned we had a water disposal problem. At first management said the numbers were wrong. They said we don’t have a problem. But I obtained the numbers directly from the sewer treatment plant manager, so I knew I was right. A year later management decided to tell the board we did indeed have a problem and it was a big one. It was so big that if we didn’t do something immediately there was a real possibility we could lose our ability to sell water and sewer taps (HNWS can’t build Navarre but it can destroy it). We could find small areas to dispose of some of the water but never enough to permanently fix the problem. There should have been another option but when it came down to it that other option was not available due to years of neglect and, in my opinion, gifts to developers.
The county was working on a RIB (rapid infiltration basin) with Eglin to dispose of the Navarre Beach Water systems effluent water that to this day still dumps into the Santa Rosa Sound. Based on our engineer’s recommendations this was a project we needed in on with the county. Flash forward to Nov. 5, 2018, and the county is ready to move forward and we have a commitment from Eglin. At that commission meeting, South Santa Rosa Utilities provided the commissioners with a less costly alternative which would allow them to possibly abandon the Eglin project and still get the effluent water out of the Santa Rosa Sound. This will not fix the problem we have at HNWS. So, a meeting of the HWNS board is called for Nov. 8, 2018. Staff wrote a letter to be presented to the Santa Rosa County Board of County Commissioners saying we understand you may be abandoning the project, but we still need it and here is a check for the amount of the 20-year lease. We (HNWS) can proceed and it won’t cost the taxpayers of Santa Rosa County any money. Also, on the agenda was a discussion of the impending retirement of Paul Gardner, our current HNWS general manager. That night with much heated discussion, the board without any formal job description, without any formal job qualifications, without any job posting and without any formal interviews decided to hire Rob Williamson as CEO of HNWS. To date nothing has been done with that letter to the county, tick-tock.
The board had decided in Feb. 2018 that due to the current size of HNWS and its affiliates we no longer needed a general manager for HNWS. HNWS has three divisions and each of those divisions has a manager that has been with HNWS for many years. Those managers operate their divisions with little to no input from the general manager. We decided we needed a person that would oversee the entire HNWS organization. Someone that could look at long range goals and take the board’s ideas and turn them into reality. Someone who could be a leader, team builder, have a strong knowledge of finance, and the “ability” to work with our local and state government, what we didn’t need is a useless figure head that we call the general manager, you can make your own decisions as to what we got.
Now the part as to why that is necessary and what it means to my town. Based on discussions, I and other board members as well as HNWS staff had with Santa Rosa County Commissioners in 2015, the County doesn’t really want to be in the water business. The Eglin project to get the water from Navarre Beach to the proposed Eglin RIB system will cost the Santa Rosa County taxpayers, based on estimates, somewhere between $11 and $18 million dollars. HNWS needs this also but HNWS can’t do it without the county because we are a privately-owned corporation, yes most of you reading this have an equity position in a corporation that has in excess of $100 million dollars in assets. What we need to create is a water authority and the county can use the Navarre Beach Water System to create one. This will be a governmental entity created by the state legislature in Tallahassee. HNWS can partner with this entity the same way Pace Water System and the Pace Water Authority work together. HNWS can’t get government grants (contrary to what our current CEO claims in his $50,000 travel budget for that purpose). This entity could search for grants. Currently the Gulf Consortium (the entity that administers the BP settlement funds) has proposed partial funding for the Eglin Project and 595 septic to sewer conversions in Holley by the Sea, which will move us ever closer to our capacity limits on effluent disposal. I wish we had someone paying attention to this when they were working on this ‘maybe a CEO or something’ job. These funds don’t cost taxpayers a single dollar. Water authorities are also eligible for state and federal funding not available to private organizations such as HNWS. Mr. Williamson, because he is a former county commissioner and a board member of the Gulf Consortium, is prohibited by state statute from assisting in these projects. I know what you are probably saying – but wasn’t that what the position was for – and you would be correct. He can’t do what needs to be done.
A vision of what could be. If we are able to form a water authority, we could use it to solve quite a few problems and maybe create a better tomorrow. We could take the Navarre Beach Waste Water Treatment plant and do away with it. Rather than sending the treated effluent to Eglin, we could send it untreated to HNWS’s current treatment plant, which could be expanded to handle it. Economies of scale work so it would be a financial benefit to all of Navarre. The authority could be the primary leaseholder for the Eglin project which would take those costs away from the Santa Rosa County taxpayers and put them on the residents of Navarre. But it would be much less expensive for us. Those 595 conversions in Holley by the Sea could possibly be expanded through state and federal grants to cover all of HBTS. Yes, any excess would be paid for by the residents of HBTS, but I think we would have some very good sources of funding to minimize those costs. Guess what this will also do? Other areas of Florida Tampa, Hillsborough County, etc. have converted areas from septic to sewer on a mass scale such as this and by removing the septic drain fields and related mounds, have greatly reduced the effects of storm water runoff. I seem to remember reading that this was a problem that would cost the Santa Rosa taxpayers up to $80 million. This solution may not completely solve the problem, but it would certainly have a great impact on it and at a fraction of the cost to taxpayers. It would benefit HNWS financially because we would be treating more water. The Eglin project is massive in terms of the water in can process. Think that since its inception in 1970 to date the Eglin field can possibly handle more than double the volume of effluent we currently produce.
This would allow us to rent excess capacity to others that may need it in the future.
Now for the kicker that will make some mad because they will think I am trying to form a city. I’m not. I’m happy with my town and until the residents of my town decide they want to do that I am good with it.
What I want to do is create a future for that city if the residents ever decide they want one. You see, this water authority would be a governmental entity and any future city of Navarre would have control over it. Thus, this plan would create a funding source for a future city without costing the residents anything, it would not cover the total costs of something like a city, but it would be something to give back to my town.
Something the people will like but my fellow board members may not. I would propose that any water authority contain at least two sitting board members of the Holley Navarre Water System. Why? Because a water authority would be subject to the Florida Sunshine Laws and any time you have two members subject to those laws on a board that board, by default, becomes subject to the sunshine laws. So, in the future, the backroom deals we argue about today will be no more.
All of this, and more really, is why I won’t quit. This is my town, ok – yours too. I’ll share. I want to make it a better place for my kids and the people I call my friends. If you think the same get involved, I need your help. If not, I’ll still keep trying, I’ll keep trying to provide sunshine on HNWS whether they like it or not. No matter what your ideas are make sure you vote on January 15, so we can get a board that will move us into the future.
HNWS Board Member