Polk County may have to borrow $30 million to pay for a new, county-wide communications system upgrade, to pay for updating its internal computer systems and to build four new fire stations.

At a recent budget workshop, County Manager Jim Freeman told the board there wasn't enough money in the bank to pay for those things and suggested the county commission consider borrowing the money instead of tapping into its reserve funds.

Freeman and Polk County Budget Director Todd Bond told the board it should also consider hiking the Fire Rescue Department's annual fees by about $10 across the board to offset the department's annual property assessment.

Bond explained that the county's existing annual fire fee of about $191 per household may need to be increased to help offset the cost of the new firehouses and to add 27 more firefighters or paramedics to the staff.

Presently, Polk Fire Rescue has about 600 employees and mans 50 stations scattered across the county's 2,000 square miles. In addition to providing service to homes and businesses in the unincorporated areas of the county, Polk Fire Rescue also acts as the fire service for the cities of Eagle Lake and Mulberry, as well as the Hillcrest Heights community.

The four new stations are proposed for Loughman in the northeast county, Sleepy Hill, Frostproof and one in the Nalcrest area.

While most of the department's emergency medical and fire runs are covered by the annual assessment, Bond explained, the department uses about $4 million on average from the Board of County Commissioners' general fund to augment what it collects annually.

Bond said the county provided $4.4 million to the Fire Rescue service in this budget year, adding that he expects to pay out about the same amount next year and double that for fiscal year 2020-21.

He said the board's general fund support doesn't include any funding for the building of the new fire stations.

Bond told the board it would have to come up with $11.5 million to replace the county's entire radio system — which includes the fire rescue department, the Polk Sheriff's Department and all the county offices that use radio communications, like code enforcement, and the road and water departments.

Freeman said the radio system was outdated and much of the communications network's radios were so old that even replacement parts were no longer available to repair inoperable units.

The last of the three primary needs outlined at the workshop was $5.4 million needed to upgrade the Enterprise Resource Planning computer programs used by multiple agencies for billing, cataloging and recording financial data. Bond said the system was also used for payroll, payables, payments, purchasing, tracking work hours and vendors.

Bond said the computer programs were last updated nearly a decade ago and existing tech support for those programs will expire by 2021.

The borrowing options Bond suggested included an outright bank loan, a commercial loan, establishing a line of credit or floating a bond issue. He said, for example, that a bank loan for the $30 million could be obtained at a 3.25 percent interest rate.

Commissioner Rick Wilson said he favored the line of credit scenario, so the county could borrow sporadically as the money was needed, with Commissioner John Hall adding that “would give us the flexibility to use the money as it was needed.”

Also under brief discussion was the need for several additional positions, including a coordinator to make sure the county complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act and two cyber security analysts.

The county governing board was told that several Florida municipalities' computer systems had been “hacked,” which created problems, and the cyber pros would be on hand to protect the county's system should attempts to disrupt its operations be discovered.

Commissioners also will be pursuing the purchase of additional parklands. Freeman said the county needed to establish “at least two more parks” — one in the northeast county and another in the southeast county area.

“I think we need to get the land purchased for these parks quickly,” Freeman said. “Especially in the northeast county, where so much development is going on so quickly and property prices are steadily increasing.”

The board took no action on any of the proposals since the budget preparation process is in its initial phases, but will approve the budget as a whole in a formal session later this year.

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