Local News

County, city may give school lunch provider $1 million

— Whomever Project Nitrogen is, Highlands County commissioners voted 5-0 Tuesday to offer a $250,000 incentive grant this year, another $150,000 next year, and spend $229,578 in labor and equipment to attract the proposed new industry.

The Sebring Regional Airport community redevelopment authority would add another $150,000, and the City of Sebring would contribute $250,000.

In return, commissioners were told, Project Nitrogen, the code name for a manufacturing business that will locate at the airpark, will spend $5 million in construction and $2.5 million on equipment, and hire 65 employees next year at an average wage of $33,880.

Commissioners also adopted an animal control policy that will split the current 10-day hold policy on impounded animals into two five-day segments; dogs and cats can be adopted during the latter five days.

Also, $4.4 million was transferred for construction of a new sheriff’s office, which should be completed by February 2017.

According to a history provided to the public at www.hcbcc.net, the company code-named Project Nitrogen manufactures “unique, healthy, agricultural-based and all-natural snack foods for school lunch programs in Florida and the Southeast. Demand has exceeded the company’s production capacity, and it is seeking a location to build a new manufacturing plant,” the history said. “Nitrogen was recently awarded a POWER Buying Group Bid for 2015, which is a Florida food service cooperative that serves over 1,000 school serving 140 million meals a year.” Over the 2015 school year, Nitrogen expects to provide 9 million servings to the POWER buying group.”

In addition, the history said, Nitrogen has also completed a pilot program with Preferred Meals, a national school lunch provider serving 70 million meals to 300 school districts in 27 states.

If the company comes to Sebring, a new steel building will be constructed, which will provide 80-100 construction jobs. The company will install $2.5 million worth of process and packaging equipment for the first line in the first year, and add up to five future processing lines at $2.1 million each.

A timeline provided to the county shows 65 jobs in the first year, 103 in the second, and up to 240 in 2019, when six lines are processing food. Projected total wages are $2.2 million in 2015, $3.3 million in 2016, and $8.1 million in 2019. The company projects adding $53,000 to the tax base in 2015, $65,000 in year two, and $679,000 in 10 years.

“The company is ready to begin construction on the project as soon as July 2014,” the commissioners were told in the history packet. “It plans to begin shipping its locally sourced agricultural products to school lunch programs beginning March 2015.”

In addition, commissioners were told, “the business will bring dynamic value-added market options to many local farms and growers.” Potential growth includes product lines for schools, hospitals, assisted living facilities, grocery stores and restaurants in the U.S. and internationally.

Commissioner Don Elwell asked for assurances.

“The company is not going to receive any funds,” County Attorney Ross Macbeth replied. “Our agreement with the airport authority... We’ve done this in the past... They will build the building, they will lease it. Even if (Project Nitrogen) fails, the airport authority will own the building and lease it to someone else.”

“We have such limited money, we cannot gamble with it,” Commissioner Jack Richie warned. “But we have to step up to the plate. We have a lot of competition out here.”

“This company has also been negotiating with other counties,” Commissioner Ron Handley said. “And they’re investing a huge amount of their own money. It’s not like they’re just walking in here and asking for a handout.”

“This is something that’s been in the making for the last 10 years,” Commissioner Jim Brooks said. “This is one that I feel pretty confident that can actually come to reality.”

Airport director Mike Willingham said the county and city money will be paid out as construction progresses.

“What’s that going to do to millage rates?” Bill Youngman rose from the audience to ask. Commissioners will start devising the 2015 budget in August, and expect to be as much as $10 million short. “Are you going to be able to handle that or not?”

“I don’t see any way around raising the millage,” George Hall said from the public podium. “I encourage you to table this.”

Sheriff Susan Benton and County Engineer Ramon Gavarrete requested an amendment to transfer $4.4 million to the law enforcement facility that will be built between the Government Center and the current sheriff’s office. More than $3 million has already been transferred, and more than $1 million will be moved when it becomes available in Fiscal Year 2015.

“Sheriff, it looks like we’re finally getting you a building before your reelection,” Handley teased Benton. Her term expires in January 2017.

“The money comes from sales tax,” Benton said, “the most equitable tax in Highlands County. It’s something that everybody pays, people passing through to Georgia, people who are just coming here fishing. And I hope that our community understands.”

Commissioners have put a 15-year extension of the one-penny tax on the Aug. 26 primary ballot. If citizens don’t vote for it, she said. “It would cripple our community, in terms of any progress in the future.”

“You are absolutely right,” Chairman Greg Harris said.

The board also allowed Animal Control Director Darryl Scott to divide the 10-day holding time for stray pets into two halves.

“Impounded animals not suspected of having an infection or contagious disease shall be held for a minimum of five full days, to provide time for the animal’s owner to notify staff of intent to recover the animal. Dogs, cats and other animals not claimed within the five day period may be adopted, or may be humanely euthanized five days after the end of any hold time.”

The new policy should not be confused with a proposed animal control ordinance, which is still being considered by a committee of veterinarians.

“It’s hard to believe you would put them down after five days,” Tammy Macklin said from the audience. “On your website, you have a lost and found. It is not possible to put them there.”

“Why can’t we do that?” Harris asked. “What can we do to improve that? What do we need? A camera?”

“We are working toward getting that implemented,” County Administrator June Fisher said. “We always give every animal every opportunity for adoption. We will even hold them longer if we have the room.”

Commissioners Elwell and Handley reluctantly voted to spend $88,700 to build parking and bathrooms for tennis courts in Lake Placid.

“It’s a big safety issue,” School Board Member Bill Brantley explained. Members of the general public are allowed to use the tennis courts, but the school doesn’t want citizens to park there or use the restrooms. “We don’t want people on campus that don’t need to be there.”

Elwell and Handley would have settled for the county, Lake Placid and the school board each paying one-third.