Local News

Commissioners agree to new sheriff's office

SEBRING - Conceding they may not build anything else until 2019, the Highlands County commissioners voted 5-0 for a new sheriff's office. But only if the Florida Department of Transportation agrees.
The cost for a 42,000 square-foot building will be about $9.1 million, County Engineer Ramon Gavarrete said. Two weeks ago, the commissioners directed Gavarrete to meet with Senior Budget Manager Tim Mechling and Sheriff Susan Benton and determine where the money would come from.
The answer, Gavarrete said Tuesday, is that money from various budget pockets might be used.
For instance, the county has put aside $3.7 million to build Sebring Parkway Phase 3, which will extend from downtown Sebring to South Florida State College. Another $1.1 million remains unspent in various capital projects funds. The county has also allocated $2.7 million for a separate property and evidence building, which would be added to the new sheriff's office. The sheriff would put off $1.1 million in jail modifications, and $600,000 could be taken from Recreation and Parks Advisory Committee funds.
At $180 per square feet, the new sheriff's building will cost about $7.6 million. Add to that about $392,000 for site development, $238,000 for permits, fees and data cables, and $100,000 for the two vacant lots.
"I feel the number is pretty close. It might be a tight budget, but we will do everything we can to bring it in at, or under, that number." Gavarrete added later. "If you wait one or two or three years to build this, it's going to be $200 per square foot."
Other capital projects, "Are not in balance," Gavarrete said.
"That means you have more projects than money," County Attorney Ross Macbeth said.
But they have always had more projects than money, Mechling said.
The county could borrow the money for the sheriff's office, Mechling and Gavarrete explained, but if the one-cent sales tax collections is used as collateral, the tax expires in 2019.
"So it could only be for five years, and that makes loan repayment very difficult," Gavarrete said.
Another option: there is $6.5 million in the landfill closure fund, so Gavarrete emailed the Department of Environmental Protection.
The state responded twice. Its first opinion: "Yeah, it can be done. No problem. Then a second email came 30 minutes later. You might be able to do it."
However, Gavarrete thinks DEP won't allow the county to borrow more than $600,000. "If you were to take $1 million or $2 million, they might have a different opinion."
"I don't want to see phase 3 go away," said Commissioner Jim Brooks, who represents the Avon Park area. "I want to see if we can get the DOT to reallocate the money. I know the sheriff needs a new facility, I just want somebody to tell me how the county is going to find $9 million. We got to find another way."
"I agree with Commissioner Brooks," Commissioner Ron Handley said. "How much more do we have to put in to finish phase 2?"
"You have funding to finish the parkway (from downtown Sebring) to DeSoto Road," Gavarrete said. "But not to U.S. 27. That money will come in 2017."
"We're cleaning out everything to do it," Handley said.
"I don't see it that way. How are we cleaning out everything? All we're using is the parkway money," Commissioner Greg Harris argued.
There is a risk, Macbeth added. If Highlands County says it is not going to finish Sebring Parkway Phase 3, the state could withdraw a $3 million grant. "They may spend it somewhere else."
Former county administrator Carl Cool, now a private engineer who has won the bid to construct Phase 3, stepped to the microphone. He was part of the team which said in 2005 that a new sheriff's office was needed.
"It's a higher priority than phase 2, and it's a higher priority than phase 3," Cool said.
In 1997, an earlier board of county commissioners was dealing with the problem of whether to build the County Government Center, where the county commissioners and four constitutional officers now have their offices, Cool said. "Until somebody asked, 'Why are you trying to build a building that's going to last 50 years, and you're trying to fund it with current-year funding?'"
Borrowing would be better than putting the $3 million state grant at risk, Cool said.
"Your current adopted budget is $122 million," Cool reminded. Even if the county borrowed $6 million, that's less than one month's budget.
Commissioner Don Elwell didn't disagree with Cool's math. But much of that $122 million in funding is restricted to paying other debts. "We can't use it for something like this."
And, Elwell and Brooks reminded, borrowing money today will obligate commissioners and taxpayers in future years.
When the vote was taken, Brooks and Handley agreed, but Brooks wanted a survey of the Florida sand skink, a slender, grey to light brown, hot-dog sized lizard with shiny scales. If they're found in the future path of Florida Parkway Phase 3, they can't be relocated, Gavarrete said. Instead, the county may have to pay thousands of dollars into a wildlife fund.
The 5-0 vote on the sand skink may have been an indicator that the entire commission still wants to build both the jail and the parkway.