SEBRING — Public county budget workshops give members of the public to tell the county elected officials and employees what they want done with their money.

In total, less than 100 people visited nighttime budget workshops this week, but those who did had a thing or two to say to officials about the upcoming 2019-20 fiscal year budget.

This year, the $155.3 million recommended budget has a General Fund of $73 million, of which the Board of County Commission can directly cut or alter $20 million.

It’s not much influence. This year, Highlands County property values jumped up 4.56%, more than twice last year’s 1.97% hike.

That might help cover budget requests by county departments and constitutional officers, but would leave nothing from the 2019-20 revenues as a reserve.

To build a reserve, David Nitz, manager of the county’s Office of Management and Budget, recommended holding all departments and agencies to a 3.5% increase or less, which would build up approximately $3.5 million in reserve.

The problem, he said, is that the county would either have to raise the property tax rates to 8.675 mills to meet that 3.5% budget hike, or drop that budget hike to keep the rate at 8.55 mills.

Residents at budget workshops this week had some questions, and suggestions.

Impact fees

Paul Hinman at the Avon Park meeting on Tuesday asked when the moratorium would end on impact fees, given that they had been put on hold 10 years ago.

County Commissioner Don Elwell, who hosted the Avon Park meeting, said they were taken out of service when the recession hit hardest in 2009.

It was hoped that would help generate some development, but no one was building anything anywhere, he said.

Sadly, even if the fees were in place, they can’t be used to balance the budget, Elwell said. They must be used for roads, schools, sidewalks, traffic controls or other capital improvements to benefit just those areas where the fees are collected.

FEMA funds

Hinman also asked if the remaining Federal Emergency Management Agency funds not yet reimbursed to the county would be considered a “windfall” when and if they arrive.

Elwell said they would, but they are not expected before Sept. 30, the last day before the county would have to approve the Fiscal Year 2019-20 budget.

As it turns out, County Administrator Randy Vosburg reported to commissioners at a morning budget workshop that FEMA announced it had approved the remaining $4.3 million for Highlands County.

Still, Vosburg said he didn’t expect the check to arrive before the end of this fiscal year, too late to affect where the county has to set the millage rate (property taxes).

Studies

Michelle Gresham wanted to know if the county is getting good return on the Economic Development Commission/Industrial Development Authority under Development Services, given that the latest study and plan cost $50,000.

Gresham said it seems to her less like a plan and more just a set of goals for the two-person department.

She also asked if the county outsourced some studies instead of doing them in-house, such as the cartographic study for the Engineering Department.

County Engineer Clinton Howerton Jr. said his office doesn’t have the staff to do that study, which involves photographing every single street and traffic sign in the county.

It was a six-month, $200,000 project, Howerton said, and was done right before Hurricane Irma hit in 2017.

Going forward, he said, the county will maintain that database of signs as workers install or replace them, to better know what signs should or shouldn’t be in place.

Utilities

Gresham then asked about NuCor, the steel plant set to build north of Avon Park, and the water and sewer line project the city of Avon Park will front for that development.

Elwell said the city expects to make all that investment back in future development along those utility lines.

“It’s a win for them,” Elwell said.

He said the county’s involvement in that development will not only help Avon Park, but also Sebring with increased residential development and occupancy.

Nix Phase 2

An attendee at Wednesday’s workshop in the Lake Placid Government Center asked whether or not the county could shut down construction on Sebring Parkway Phase 2 — from Youth Care Lane south to U.S. 27 in Sebring — and reallocate county money to repave or reconstruct dilapidated county-maintained roads.

Much of that project is grant-funded through the Florida Department of Transportation, which is also working to expand the left turn lanes into that section of road on the contingency that Phase 2 of the Parkway will get built.

The extra left turn lanes off U.S. 27 are being funded in part by Wawa, the national convenience store chain planning to build on that corner and counting on the traffic.

FDOT has also gotten a $40,000 commitment from the county to replace the traffic signal span wires at that spot with a solid steel mast arm.

Fire stations

Another Lake Placid resident asked about the high millage rate of 8.55 and how the county intends to ensure its older fire stations get updated or replaced.

Fire service improvements are now being handled by a non-ad valorem assessment. It’s collected in addition to property taxes but is not based on property values.

Recreation

Lake Placid Town Councilman Ray Royce, also at Wednesday’s workshop, said he hoped the county would not touch the annual $110,000 in recreation funds given each year to the three municipalities.

Those funds help maintain parks in Lake Placid that the entire county uses, Royce said, such as Lake June Ball Fields, which are often used for baseball and softball tournaments.

Vosburg pledged to take those topics back to the County Commission budget workshop on Thursday morning.

Unfortunately, the commissioners who were there — Elwell, Greg Harris and Arlene Tuck — tried to find cuts in county departments, but didn’t find much to cut, yet.

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