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Jim Mills Appointed to CDD Board; District Landscaper Fails Monthly Review

A lengthy three hour meeting of the Westchase CDD saw the existing four supervisors interview eight candidates for the open seat created by Brian Zeigler’s February resignation before unanimously appointing Bridges resident Jim Mills.

The Westchase Community Development District (CDD) meeting also featured an announcement that Davey, the district’s landscaping contractor, had failed its most recent performance inspection, costing it 25 percent of its typical monthly payment.

At the June 2 meeting CDD Manager Andy Mendenhall of Severn Trent Services announced that 11 residents originally expressed interest in the position but three of them withdrew from consideration prior to the meeting. “We have never had this much interest in a supervisor seat,” observed CDD Chair Mark Ragusa.

Supervisors then spent the bulk of their meeting hearing the candidates introduce themselves and field some brief questions.  

First interviewed was Eric Goldstein, currently the president of the Woodbridge homeowners association and a Westchase resident of 19 years. A pharmacist by training, Goldstein went on to work in executive management positions. Asked by CDD Supervisor Greg Chesney about whether he would support spending $150,000 out of a proposed $1.2 million parks capital improvement project (CIP) to refurbish the West Park Village splash pad, Goldstein initially said he would need more information and then wondered if the money might be better spent elsewhere. Goldstein garnered appreciative laughter, however, when he responded to Chesney’s question about what he had last done with his grandchildren. Stating one of his grandkids loved magic, Goldstein said he trained himself in magic tricks before his recent visit. “I put on a magic show every day.”

Bridges resident Jim Mills cited his previous volunteer work as Kingsford VM, his stint as Westchase Community Association (WCA) president a decade ago and his work on a Hillsborough County citizen advisory committee. He also detailed his management work within the petroleum industry. Explaining his interest in the seat and citing his extensive budgeting and management experience, Mills stated, “I’m interested in the capital project.” Currently renting his Bridges home, Mills reiterated to Chesney that his wife and he planned to purchase a Westchase home in August.

Ten-year Westchase resident Basil Piazza, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army, cited his experience as an Army engineer (clarifying that he does not hold an actual engineering degree), which he cited as giving him experience in construction management and a good understanding of rules binding government entities. Citing his strengths, Piazza stated he was very good at analyzing information and making decisions.

A 22-year naval reserve veteran who rose to the rank of captain during his four years of active service with the U.S. Navy, Russell Crooks was the candidate with the longest Westchase residency – he moved into his Bennington home back in 1993. A current alternate Voting Member for his village, Crooks stated he volunteered on an early WCA committee when the association was still under developer control. When asked by Chesney if he supported refurbishing the spray pad and keeping amenities like the Glencliff Park basketball courts, Crooks said keeping the spray pad depended upon its popularity. “If it’s not being used, it seems to me grass is the best option for in there.” As for the courts, Crooks favored keeping amenities that may have prompted residents to purchase Westchase homes. “My view is they should at least be maintained at this time,” he stated.

After reading support materials for Matt Lewis, a seven-year resident of Wycliff, Supervisor Chesney observed that Lewis’ resume, featuring engineering work, was the most intriguing of the lot for him. Chesney added, however, that Lewis’ focus on roads and bridges really wasn’t the kind of work entailed by the upcoming CIP. Addressing Ragusa’s questions about what qualities made him uniquely qualified for the position, Lewis stated it was his goal to get the fairest deal for district taxpayers. He added of engineers, “We’re natural problem solvers. That’s what we do for a living.”

A resident since 2001 who has owned homes in Woodbay and West Park Village, Tom Karpowich cited his past work as a CPA and current work as an executive of an accounting software firm. “I understand how accounting works,” he stated. Explaining his approach to the CIP and budgeting for amenities or upgrades, he remarked, “You want to spread the wealth around,” ensuring that amenities were available close to all neighborhoods.

Stamford resident Kirk Sexton, an 18-year resident who previously served as Stamford VM, stated he worked for the Hillsborough County Tax Collector. “I run the IT shop there,” he said, adding, “I’m pretty familiar with state and local governments and all the statutes that go with it.”

When Chesney asked him to elaborate on his response to WOW that he thought the Westchase CDD assessments leaned high, Sexton answered, “I consider myself a rather fiscally conservative person.” He added, “I don’t think we’re excessive.” Sexton stated that he simply was observing Westchase’s leaned high compared to other CDDs in the county. When asked about his unique qualifications, Sexton cited his leadership roles as a former chief information officer for a hospital and insurance company and added, “I know budgeting.”

A Radcliffe resident since 1998, Keith Heinemann was the only candidate with former experience on the CDD board. He completed the term of former CDD Supervisor Ernie Sylvester when he resigned for health reasons. Heinemann touted his previous experience and mentioned his current volunteer experience as WCA director and former Radcliffe VM. A current employee of the U.S. Postal Service, Heinemann said of his previous career with the U.S. Air Force, “I was reasonably high up in the food chain.” Citing his unique qualifications, Heinemann pointed to his people and organizational skills and his ability to get people involved.

Following interviews, every supervisor praised the group as remarkably qualified. “I would have been ecstatic with any of you serving on the board,” CDD Chair Ragusa remarked.

After discussing the best way to approach the appointment, supervisors initially opted for a secret ballot on which each jotted their top two picks to narrow the field. In later remarks, all identified whom they supported. The ballot showed greatest support for Mills, who garnered two first place picks and one second place pick. Lewis also won two first place nods. Heinemann received two second place votes and Sexton received one second place vote.

While the initial discussion suggested an even split on the board between Mills and Lewis, sentiment appeared to shift after Supervisor Ross weighed in, stating his litmus test was past community service. Ross argued that while the engineering and accounting skills offered by other candidates were useful, the district already had an engineer and accountant. “I was tilting toward people who have had experience in the community,” he said.

Supervisors ultimately voted 4-0, to appoint Mills to the seat. Mills was immediately sworn in and took his position.

The meeting, however, opened with Field Supervisor Doug Mays’ announcement that that Davey, the district’s landscaping company, had failed an independent inspection by OLM. Under the contract, OLM grades the contractor’s performance monthly. In order to receive 25 percent of its contracted rate as “performance pay,” Davey must maintain a grade of 87 percent or higher. A recent grade of 79 percent, after barely passing in February, cost them the bonus funds. “They lost $11,000 of their monthly payment,” observed CDD Chair Mark Ragusa.

“I’ve discussed it with the branch manager,” said Mays. “He was concerned.”

Mays added, “The employees they’re getting are not qualified.” He added, “That’s where they’re failing now. They’re really understaffed.”

Mays stated he believed the Westchase property required 12-13 full-time staff, in addition to an irrigation technician and supervisor for proper maintenance. “We’ve seen as low as six or seven guys on the property on a weekly basis,” he said.

Mays stated that Davey was pulling qualified employees from other sites to address the issues flagged by OLM’s inspection. He added, however, that since many landscaping companies simply want to list Westchase on their resumes, supervisors might consider adding a minimum staffing level to its landscaping contract to make underbidding the property more difficult. CDD Chair Mark Ragusa, however, countered the suggestion. “I don’t think the CDD should be in the position of dictating manpower to the contractor.”

Agreeing that the failing grade appeared justified, Mays stated that even Davey acknowledged the setback, stating the contractor offered “zero disagreements with the failing grade.”

Supervisors also briefly reviewed the district’s draft budget. Last month supervisors directed Mendenhall to maintain current spending and assessment levels rather than raise them and asked that whatever increases occurred in portions of the budget be offset with a reduction to the $400,000 budgeted again to cover costs associated with the CIP. This month’s budget draft, however, came back with reduced spending on other lines and an actual increase to CIP spending. District Manager Mendenhall stated that this was the result of cuts elsewhere, particularly in pond spending. Combined with supervisors’ request that spending remain the same, he stated staff was compelled to tuck the overage into the CIP line. CDD Office Manager Sonny Whyte, however, stated that the draft budget’s reduction in pond back erosion repairs by $30,000 appeared to be an error. Referring to the changes to the budget, Supervisor Chesney remarked, “There’s something screwy,” adding, “That doesn’t make any sense.”

Mendenhall committed to clearing up any errors by July’s meeting. The district’s formal public hearing on the budget is in August.

In other actions:

CDD Chair Mark Ragusa asked WOW to disseminate their park planner’s draft ideas for the upcoming $1.2 million CIP, aimed at refurbishing Westchase parks, in order to generate community feedback in time for consideration at the district’s July 7 meeting.

CDD Office Manager Sonny Whyte stated that the new district Web site, aimed at meeting new statutory requirements, would be ready next month once the district’s financial and meeting documents were added. Supervisors asked CDD attorney Erin McCormick to investigate whether state law required the district’s site to offer a direct link to documents on its server or whether they could link to Severn Trent’s Web site, where they are already posted.

Field Supervisor Doug Mays stated that a previous contractor that had bid $56,000 to repair roughly 100 linear feet of brick wall between Keswick Forest and Glenfield had offered a less expensive alternative. A concrete block wall with stucco stained to appear like brick would cost $43,000. Mays said he was pursuing other bids for work addressing the wall, which has been cracked and undermined by tree roots.

CDD Chair Mark Ragusa stated he had presented a final agreement to a representative of the Saturday Morning Soccer Club for the exclusive use of Glencliff soccer fields on Sunday mornings. Ragusa stated he had asked that the representative present it to one of the club officers for a signature.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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