Local News

County may move 70 deputies, staff

SEBRING - Commissioners finally decided to have Highlands County Engineer Ramon Gavarrete negotiate a contract to extend Sebring Parkway past Youth Care Lane, and that was the big news of their meeting Tuesday until Ron Handley spitballed a new idea.

Tuesday morning, Handley told the other four commissioners it occurred to him that the county should not renew the sheriff's department lease with the Liberty Star Plaza, which houses more than 70 deputies and office staff.

The rest of the commissioners agreed, so they instructed County Administrator June Fisher to begin work as soon as possible.

"And thanks to Commissioner Elwell for agreeing to break the news to the sheriff," Chairman Greg Harris joked. Earlier, Harris asked if Sheriff Susan Benton had been informed. She wasn't at the meeting. "That needs to happen, because she does carry a gun."

"Just because I'm larger, doesn't mean I can stop that bullet," Don Elwell laughed.

A few minutes earlier, Assistant County Administrator Randal Vosburg had asked for approval to renew the lease agreement at Liberty Star, a shopping center south of Sebring.

Four years ago, Benton used a three-year federal grant to lease 11,500 square feet of Liberty Star to house the investigative division. Since the county is required to provide space for the five constitutional officers, the county picked up the $140,456 cost of the lease last year.

"The current lease will expire Feb. 28," Vosburg said. He suggested a seven-month lease, which would expire at the end of the county's fiscal year. However, he said, the landlord wanted an 8-percent increase.

That's too high, said Handley, "with today's availability of rental space. The idea came to me this morning, let's let the lease run out, then move them over to where property and evidence is going."

In February 2008, Highlands County paid $1.235 million for 16,000 square feet of an office building in February 2008 that County Engineer Ramon Gavarrete called "a mini-warehouse." In July 2010, the county paid another $182,641 for an additional 2,000 square feet church that was occupied by Arise Ministries.

Of that 18,000 square feet, the supervisor of elections is storing records, machines and training in 6,000 square feet, and the clerk of courts is using 2,000. That leaves 10,000 square feet for the sheriff.

"We can put them in portable office space, until we get finished," Handley said. That way, investigators will be right across the parking lot from the proposed property and evidence building, Handley reasoned.

Responses are due on Dec. 19 for a request for proposals to build a new property and evidence building across the parking lot from the Kenilworth Business Center, 4500 Kenilworth Blvd.

"That will give the sheriff a brand-new solid structure," Handley said.

Four years ago, when a new $11.2 million building was proposed on George Boulevard to house the entire sheriff's office, Benton had proposed bulletproof glass and walls. However, Handley pointed out, Liberty Star Plaza is just a storefront. "So there is no issue with that... This is a best solution for to provide her with a building."

"It would be a fraction of the cost from the numbers we have thrown around in the past," Elwell warmed to the idea.

"We would have to go extend the (Liberty Star) lease through Feb. 28," Harris said. "What are you going to do then?"

"Put them in a temporary office," Handley said.

"I'd rather go month-by-month on the current lease," Commissioner Jim Brooks said. He didn't want the deputies to move twice.

However, only two people work on the county construction crew.

Handley suggested using local subcontractors to finish the Kenilworth, which is currently a metal building with nine 2,000 square-foot bays. The church and some of the storage areas are partially finished; other bays are unfinished inside.

At a recent meeting, County Engineer Ramon Gavarrete discovered he and Yarbrough Tire were using three different maps. They were needed to decide how much frontage to purchase for turn lanes along Sebring Parkway Phase II at Youth Care Lane.

"We made sure we have the right drawing this time," Gavarrete said.

Yarbrough wants $502,000 for a strip of frontage in front of the tire building, plus another $14,000 for the frontage of a vacant lot.

"If the board goes forward, it will need to schedule a public hearing," Gavarrete said. At the earliest, a contract could be negotiated and hearings held in late January or February."

"Some of these estimates are high," Handley said. "I'm okay with the discussions, but I don't want to approve the number."

"What are you calling negotiations?" Commissioner Jack Richie asked of Gavarrete.

"The negotiating is done," Elwell interjected. "Now we're moving forward for contract."

"Why so long?" Richie asked.

"We have to advertise," Gavarrete said. Public notice must be given on bulletin boards and in newspapers.

"Whatever numbers we agree on, is a check written to Yarbrough? Do those improvements? How does it work?" Handley asked.

Signs must be moved, along with two driveways and a septic tank, and landscaping could be performed.

"Everything is fair game in the discussions," County Attorney Ross Macbeth advised. Then he asked Gavarrete. "Are we being asked to do the improvements?"

It could work either way, Gavarrete said.

"Why can't we do the engineering portion in house?" Handley asked. "It's not rocket science and it shouldn't cost $30,000 to do it. The same with landscaping and irrigation. They (built Yarbrough Tire) there before there were (landscaping) rules. Why are we requiring them to do it now. And that sign. I've bought a lot of signs, and that's a lot of money for sign work."

Heartland Designs estimated $30,950 for landscaping and irrigation, labor, irrigation and a new well and pump; All About Signs estimated $75,649 for the removal of existing signs and the installation of new signs.

"I have some of the same concerns," Brooks said.

"The county is not requiring any improvement," Gavarrete said. "The only requirement is the closing of the driveway at the intersection (of Youth Care and Sebring Parkway)."

Danny Yarbrough said all the estimates are more than several months old, and are only good for 30 days.

Would Yarbrough agree allowing the county to do some of the work, Handley asked.

"We're not asking to be any better off than we are now," Yarbrough balked.

"I think we can knock $100,000 off," Handley asserted.

"I can't see paying a ($516,000) lump sum up front." Richie suggested that the county pay for costs as they occur.

"Each time there is a change," Yarbrough said, "it goes back to your attorney, then to our attorney. You're probably talking about more money than we're talking about here."

"I believe that's right," Harris agreed.

"It would blow you away to see how much money that has already been spent," Yarbrough mentioned about eight surveys. "I feel like they're good numbers. I don't know if I will agree to anything less."