Local News

Commissioners to talk about new industrial prospect

— The big news Tuesday wasn’t putting a 1 percent sales tax on the Aug. 26 primary ballot, or even a three-year moratorium on impact fees. Those issues have been discussed before.

The new news was the final words of Chairman Greg Harris, who asked fellow commissioners to think about whether Highlands County will cooperate in bringing a new manufacturer to Sebring Regional Airport’s industrial park.

“I just want to have a general discussion about Project Nitrogen,” said Harris. If the economic development project comes to Sebring Regional Airport, Highlands County may have to offer $250,000 in cash incentives, as well as helping with site prep.

Commissioners — but not the public — have been briefed by Economic Development Commission director Stephen Weeks and Airport Director Mike Willingham. Economic developers attract businesses to the area, but are sworn to secrecy about industrial secrets.

The new company would bring from 60 to 240 jobs, Harris said.

The City of Sebring will be participating, along with the airport community redevelopment agency and the county.

“I’d like to discuss that at our next meeting,” Harris said. He will be asking for commission approval to move forward and identify where $250,000 would come from.

“I know you’ve all been talking about it, so let’s be ready to make a decision in two weeks,” Harris said, at the July 1 meeting.

“Maybe it’s premature,” Commissioner Ron Handley said, “but the funds will be the problem. How can we make that happen, legally?”

“You approve it, and budget funds for it,” County Attorney Ross Macbeth answered. “I’m not sure it’s necessarily more complicated than that, but I’ll be better informed by your next meeting.”

The money would come from a reserve-for-contingency fund. “Which is currently sitting at or around $600,000,” Commissioner Elwell said.

Commissioners did not say which company is coming, the nature of the industry, or how long Weeks and Willingham have been working on the project.

County Administrator June Fisher released a short list of 23 projects funded by the 1 percent sales tax since it was implemented on Nov. 1, 2004: Sebring Parkway Phase II, Avon Park library expansion, Veterans Beach on Lake Jackson, Public Defender’s Building, and the future new sheriff’s department. The tax will expire in 2019.

Commissioners voted 4-0, with Jack Richie absent, to put the issue on the ballot so voters can choose in two months whether to extend the tax another 15 years.

The controversy was over whether the county government should spend $25,000 “for public information and educational material related to the ballot question...”

“What you’re telling me is that you’re going to take the taxpayer’s money and set a campaign and get that taxpayers to approve this new tax,” said Bill Youngman from the citizen’s podium. He said in 1999, the county asked for donations to fund the “public education campaign.” He suggested appointing tea party members to an ad hoc committee to educate voters. “Don’t pull the wool over their eyes.”

John Nelson, leader of the Highlands County tea party movement, agreed. The $25,000 would be used “to brainwash the people. These taxes never go away. Between now and 2019, you’re going to collect another $54-55 million. What’s the big urgency?”

Dale Wilson asked from the audience if the commissioners had thought about moving the issue to November, when more voters are in town. Primary elections have smaller turnouts than the November general election, he pointed out.

The school board has placed its one-half cent sales tax on the Nov. 4 general election, he was told, which will avoid voter confusion over the two issues.

Commissioner Don Elwell wanted to trim the uses of the capital tax in the future, which has added vague items like utilities for court-related functions and economic development projects.”

“Which I’ve heard quite a bit about. I don’t disagree that we need economic development,” Elwell said, “but I think people are fearful that we’re going to supplement general fund dollars.”

“I have the same concerns,” Commissioner Jim Brooks said. “This has been an important source of revenue. We can’t go out and finance a long-term project unless we know we are going to have the money to pay that.”

Impact fees on new homes and businesses have been suspended since July 1, 2009, and each year the board has continued the moratorium for one year.

“Can we extend it two years?” asked Commissioner Ron Handley.

“I don’t have any problem with doing away with it,” Brooks said.

“You can’t rescind the ordinance with this ordinance,” County Attorney Ross Macbeth said about the moratorium they were voting on. The dates could be changed, though.

Elwell was against repeal. The recession is ending, he said, and new growth in schools, for instance, must be paid for. A $5,331 impact fee on a new house, for instance, also funds expansion in correctional facilities, law enforcement, libraries, EMS, transportation, fire and rescue, and parks and recreation.

“It needs to pay for the new infrastructure,” Elwell said. “I don’t want to jeopardize the future. I think we should stay with (suspension for) one year. My thought process has evolved as the economy has evolved a little bit.”

The moratorium passed, 3-1.

Despite Agenda 21 protests from tea partiers in the audience, the board recognized land development regulations around the Avon Park Air Force Range.

“We are relatively encroachment free,” said Buck MacLaughlin, a former base commander.

“I don’t like the federal government getting involved in anything we do in this county or this state. It’s not their responsibility,” Nelson said.

“I don’t trust the government, I don’t trust the Air Force, and I don’t trust the (Central Florida) Regional Planning Council,” Dale Pflug said. “Is the mission changing to include drones?”

“Anybody want to address any of those comments?” Harris asked.

MacLaughlin did not.