SEBRING — After four hours going over the county’s capital financial strategy and departmental budgets for fiscal Year 2019-20, commissioners didn’t change much.

“I had a feeling we didn’t have any significant cuts,” said County Administrator Randy Vosburg as the Board of County Commission ended Thursday’s workshop. “(I) will work with staff to get us down as low (and) as soon as we can.”

Three county commissioners — Don Elwell, Greg Harris and Arlene Tuck — didn’t find many places to make significant cuts without impacting county services. Other commissioners were absent.

Highlands County’s 4.56% increase in property values overall has helped raise this year’s recommended budget to $155.3 million, $11.6 million more than this year.

Still, to rebuild the fund balance, the county must hold requests to a 3.5% increase.

Even then, the county would have to raise property taxes to 8.675 mils, said Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Manager David Nitz. Tuck said she would vote against this budget if the millage rate doesn’t drop below the current 8.55 mils.

Vosburg promised to suggest new adjustments at Tuesday’s 5:30 p.m. regular board meeting and at the 9 a.m. July 23 meeting to set the maximum millage rate, followed by a workshop on constitutional officers and outside agencies.

Vosburg told commissioners to expect difficulty with health insurance this year, with a $200,000 deficit forecast for the county-funded system. He also suggests changing vendors. Since renewal is due Aug. 18, he will need a decision Tuesday.

Rates have gone up. Of the annual premium per employee, the county covers $7,500 and employees pay $540. He suggested raising employee share to $1,987.

Otherwise, he said, the county may need to invest $1.3 million to keep employees from paying more and $.17 million to rebuild the health insurance reserve.

Capital projects

The county’s 10-year Capital Financial Strategy for equipment purchases and construction projects has the county as a partner in recreation facility improvements in each municipality and both special improvement districts.

Commissioners asked to set the county’s portion at 60% on all recreation projects and cut a $195,329 countywide project for restrooms at Miracle League Field.

Board

Commissioners have a 4.1% increase in pay, by Florida statute. County Attorney Joy Carmichael’s office has a 0.5% decrease and Vosburg’s office has a 16.4% increase for a legislative and grants administrator.

Public Information Officer Gloria Rybinski has a 68.5% increase for an assistant to help with increased public record requests, ADA issues and press releases/education for Highlands County Fire Rescue (HCFR) and the recycling program. Vosburg proposes splitting cost among administration, solid waste and public safety.

Both Tuck and Harris said they thought Rybinski really needs the help.

Business

Business services overall has a 4.7% increase, with 1.06% more for auditing, 5.79% more for OMB, 17.36% more to human resources for a tech hire, 1.42% less torisk management, 81.93% more to hire a non-ad valorem assessment manager, 27.89% more for Purchasing and 14.67% for Central Services.

Tuck asked if potential hires could pay for their own drug tests. Vosburg said the county could refund hires after their probationary period. Elwell said that might set a negative tone with new hires and suggested they revisit the question Tuesday.

Vosburg said payroll would see a 14.7% increase, for cost of living and merit pay.

Park/Facilities

County parks costs are up 0.52%, while the sports complex costs will drop by 3.47%. Elwell asked for a “ballpark” revenue estimate. Vosburg said $30,000.

The Florida Boating Improvement Program to fix/maintain boat ramps will go up 60.71%, Facilities management costs will go down 3.51%, Courthouse facilities will drop 0.76% and State Court facilities will drop 6.3%.

Community

Community programs costs will go up 2.96%. The Children’s Advocacy Center will go up 33.59% because of a grant-funded mental health professional and a staff member going from part-time to full-time. Healthy families costs go up 4.07%, and community program services will go down 2.17%.

The Veteran Services Office will go up 26.51%, with a fourth person on the team.

Libraries

The Heartland Library Cooperative will go down 39.64%, with library costs countywide going up 1.56% and going down 4.72% in Avon Park, up 4.63% in Sebring and up 3.4% in Lake Placid.

Engineer

County engineer costs will go up 3.43% overall, with a 4.94% increase in engineering services for a new hire, a 5.87% increase in traffic operations, a 1% increase in the Geographic Information System.

The refuse disposal system will cost 4.3% less, the landfill closure program will cost 8.1% more for constant monitoring and the refuse collection program is up 3.9%.

Road & Bridge

The Road and Bridge Department is up 2.23% overall for retirement pay increases. Road and bridge services are up 5.72%, thanks to operational costs. Bridge and concrete costs are down 1.35%, the maintenance shop and warehouse are up 3.81%, right of way maintenance is up 1.99%, county shell pit costs are down 1.63%, the asphalt plant is up 1.43%, natural resources costs are down 1.22% and the cooperative aquatic plant control program is down 1%.

Public Safety

Overall, public safety costs are down 6.77%, but fire safety is up 17.83%, mostly from new hires under the fire assessment, which is up 97.12%. Vosburg said fire services expenses are high in anticipation of built-in annual assessment increases.

Elwell said he didn’t like the idea of deficit budgeting based on an expected increase.

“We’re spending our raise before we get it,” Elwell said.

Tuck also didn’t like the county pays for lawn service at fire stations.

“Can our firemen mow the lawn when they don’t have anything to do?” she asked.

“Our firefighters will always have something to do,” HCFR Chief Marc Bashoor said.

Vosburg said he could bring fire services expenses back to the board on Tuesday.

Emergency management is down 1.08%, emergency medical services is up 6.32%, the intergovernmental radio program is up 1.3% and communications is up 3.51%.

Development

Development services costs are up 2.35% overall, with a drop of 1.26% for planning and a 26.48% hike for zoning, for an extra position.

Nuisance abatement is down 19.08%, the economic development is down 8.7% and historic preservation is down 9.57%. The building department is up 4.04%.

Tourist development is down 2.37%, arts and culture funding is down 100% as that fund has been folded into the overall tourist funding. Tourist marketing and promotion is up 33.19%. Tourist lakes funds and lakes marketing show no change. the same is true for tourist asset development.

Tuck asked if tourist funds could be folded into the economic development office and have marketing run from there. Carmichael said the staff wouldn’t matter, but by statute, tourist tax funds would have to be spent on tourism marketing, not economic development.

Elwell said economic development focuses on drawing businesses, not visitors or future residents, but he said he could see some “synergy” there. Vosburg said both departments are under Development Services, so the potential for partnership is there.

State Housing Initiative Partnership administration costs are up 41.15% because grant funds rolled over, Vosburg said. The program is down 19.4%.

Extension

Highlands county’s extension office budget is up 2.27%.

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