Friday night marked an end to the trial of a North Central Florida city made a punchline in the media and denounced by government officials.
Hampton residents cried out in celebration and wiped away tears at the Victory Baptist Church near Division Avenue and Pine Street after two state lawmakers announced they had abandoned plans to dissolve the city.
Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Orange Park) and Rep. Charles E. Van Zant (R-Palatka), delivered the verdict from the church altar to a packed room of about 100 people. A city councilman’s presentation earlier in the evening convinced them the government was on track to redemption.
“We didn’t know what we were going to walk into tonight,” the senator said in an interview after the meeting. “We had heard that they were making progress, but it’s obvious they’ve made a lot of progress. Tonight is a rebirth for the city of Hampton. I’m so proud to represent these people.”
Hampton residents have decried the corrupt government for the city’s poor national reputation and defended the nearly 90-year-old city and its right to autonomy.
“It’s a good thing that they did come in and take over,” resident Melissa Manning said. “I don’t know how much more money could’ve been taken without them getting it together and finding out where it was going.”
The city government first made headlines just before Thanksgiving when then-Mayor Barry Layne Moore was arrested on suspicion of selling oxycodone to an undercover officer.
Moore is still in the Bradford County Jail in lieu of $45,000, according to jail records.
Then, CNN dubbed the former Bradford County seat “the dirtiest little town in Florida” and “The ‘Twilight Zone‘ of government gone wrong” after a February state auditor general’s report found city government violated 31 accounting and business policies and procedures.
According to the audit, records were poorly kept for years, money was mismanaged and unaccounted for, public records weren’t adequately maintained and a former city clerk was overpaid by $9,000.
Some water revenue wasn’t billed and collected, and more than $27,000 was spent without a public purpose.
Nine out of the 13 accounts reviewed by the auditor general showed payment gaps while the city’s largest commercial consumer, an elder home, hadn’t paid its water bill since it opened in 2007.
Other discrepancies include insufficient records on cash receipts to the city water fund, unenforced surcharges and reinstatement fees for delayed payment, according to the report.
Rep. Lake Ray, the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee chairman, said the water management district questioned why nearly half of the water went unaccounted for.
“From an auditing standpoint, what we believe is that some of the people never had their meters checked in years,” Ray said.
The water treatment facility was given federal grants for improvement in the last couple of years, Ray said.
The city only had $4,683 available for the city’s water budget out of the $12,140 the auditors suggested for the facility. Officials then used money from the city’s general fund to help balance the deficit.
Ray says the city’s inability to keep the fund at its prospected budget is probably due to the inconsistencies in bill payment and lack of meter readings.
“I don’t know how they are doing it,” Ray said. “In fact, the information I have from the city itself, I’m not sure that they know how they were collecting funds.”
The lack of records and inconsistent meter readings could mean varied changes to the approximately 500 residents’ water bills.
“If they had not been having their meters read, and they were paying some sort of a price that was not representative of how much water they were using, I would suspect their water bills to go up substantially,” Ray said.
“Otherwise, I would think that those which are paying their proper share of the water usage should not be impacted,” he said.
Some of the most vocal criticism of the city, best known as a speed trap for drivers on U.S. 301, has come from Bradford County Sheriff Gordon Smith.
The sheriff’s office has handled all service calls in Hampton for the last several years, but whether the office approves of dissolution is irrelevant, said spokesman Capt. Brad Smith.
“We just want whatever is best for the citizens of Hampton,” Smith said. “Once they make a decision, we’ll support whatever they wish to do.”
“The Police Department down there was mainly focused on traffic enforcement, so that function won’t change as far as calls for service,” he said. “We’ll continue to take care of those type of needs for the people of Hampton.”
No city has been dissolved by the legislature since the Home Rule Powers Act in 1973, which allows cities and counties to enact ordinances without the state’s approval, said Lynn Tipton, Florida League of Cities membership development director.
Two Florida cities dissolved in the last 40 years include Golfview in Palm Beach County and Cedar Grove in Bay County, Tipton said. Residents had voted to dissolve.
Some residents of Boulogne in Nassau County, near the Florida-Georgia state line, blame the community’s 1963 dissolution as part of what killed its industry.
Less than 70 miles from Hampton, Boulogne is remembered as another infamous Florida speed trap.
“It was a beautiful place, it really was,” said Gene Higgenbotham, who’s lived outside the community for 40 years. “But it was all funded by the police department.”
State lawmakers had given Hampton 30 days to put together a plan to improve operations at a Feb. 27 meeting in Starke.
Had they filed a bill dissolving Hampton into the rest of unincorporated Bradford County, the county would take control of the services the city government operated.
This would have included water treatment, changing what residents pay in taxes, the state lawmakers said at a February meeting in Starke.
The only remnant of the former county seat would’ve been lifelong residents and its name on the local post office and elementary school, the lawmakers had said.
City Councilman Bill Goodge said Friday’s meeting left him ecstatic.
“The decision was weighed on for a long time. I knew they were going to do that though,” he said. “They had to. We really made leaps and bounds to improve Hampton.”
Goodge and the rest of the city council promised to resign in October following a special election in September for new city officials. City Clerk Jane Hall resigned on June 3, according to the audit.
As part of the plan to revamp the city’s image, the Hampton borders will be reduced to pre-1990s limits, back before the city annexed land reaching U.S. 301 to raise money from traffic tickets.
“I think we’re going to meet that challenge head on,” Goodge said. “New people coming in, I think they’ll have the same enthusiasm that I have right now to improve our image as Hampton.”
Sen. Bradley said he and Rep. Van Zant will return a few days after the election to host a barbecue celebrating the city’s rebirth. He encouraged residents to run for positions in the new government.
“This town is going to be a town that the citizens can be proud of,” he said. “I’m confident that they understand they can never go back to where they were and that they will make sure that never happens again.”
Wade Millward edited this story for Web.
Additional reporting by Rochelle Alleyne, Monica Kelly and Lauren Richardson.