Local News

New tourist development plan chosen

Highlands County commissioners Tuesday evening amended the tourist development plan, modified administrative job descriptions, and discussed who should be asked to pray at their meetings. The new tourism plan, which collects about $300,000 annually from a 2 percent hotel-motel tax, sets aside 10 percent to finance lakes, beach parks, erosion control and cleanups; 20 percent for arts and culture, and the remaining 70 percent for local events and all other tourism. Administrative expenses currently take about 42 percent of the budget. The tourism budget, originally adopted in 2002, was amended after two years of strife with the arts and culture community. Their spokesman, Fred Leavitt, contended and finally won an argument that the 2002 plan wasn't being followed and that the required 17 percent wasn't being allotted to arts and culture. Commission chair Jack Richie praised TDC chair Don Elwell after the commissioner asked Tourism Director John Scherlacher to audit the agency's accounts and correct the amounts of money that should have been spent in lakes, arts, administrative, events and other funds.
"The public also owes a thank you for Bill Youngman for bringing this forward and staying on it for two years," added local tea party chair Jack Nelson. An Equal Opportunity Employment study presented by Assistant County Administrator Randy Vosburg shows the county employs 387 workers; 274 are male and among those, 229 are white, 13 black, 23 Hispanic, seven Asian, and two native American; 113 are female and among those, 95 are white, six black, 11 Hispanic, one Asian and no native Americans. In both genders, there are no blacks in the administrative category, three Hispanics, no Asians and no native Americans. In the professional and technical categories, there are five blacks, 10 Hispanics, two Asians, and one native American. In the clerical, craft and maintenance categories, there are 14 blacks, 21 Hispanics, six Asians and one native American. In the Identification of Possible Problem Areas section, the study said, "Qualified minorities and women receive all benefits received by non-minorities..." The board approved County Administrator June Fisher's changes in job descriptions and eliminated the director of administrative services job, last held by Jed Secory. Secory, who resigned earlier this year, was the purchasing director until he was promoted to one of the super-director jobs by former administrator Rick Helms. The elimination of that job required job description modifications to seven others answering to the administrative services director, Fisher explained to the commissioners. They also agreed to upgrade the categories of carpentry crew supervisor and warehouse manager in the road and bridge department. Another change moved the 911 address specialist to GIS addressing professional. The estimated impact was $13,937 annually, Fisher said. County Attorney Ross Macbeth brought up the item that generated the greatest discussion: a written method for asking ministers to pray at three county commission meetings per month. Macbeth proposed forming a list from the Yellow Pages. "As many as possible, coming on a preset schedule." The purpose, he said, "is to represent the diversity of religion in the community." Macbeth said he chose this method because the Lakeland City Commission had already been challenged in court, "and it was found to be constitutional." The Atheists of Florida sued Lakeland and Mayor Gow Fields in Tampa's U.S. District Court. "Beginning in March 2010, Plaintiffs began to complain to the City about the prayers at City Commission meetings. On March 15, 2010, Plaintiffs delivered a letter asking that the City dispense with its religious prayer practice and instead offer a "silent moment of reflection." Instead, Lakeland added a rabbi, an iman and other non-Christian denominations to the list of invitees. The atheists contended that, "The selection and invocation process itself, which necessarily excludes atheists and agnostics and results in a majority of Christian invocation speakers, embodies an unconstitutional affiliation of the City of Lakeland with the Christian faith." Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich disagreed: "Plaintiffs admit that no person or group of any kind has ever been denied the opportunity to pray after requesting to offer the invocation at a City Commission meeting... This Court has also considered the nature of the prayers themselves and finds that they did not 'proselytize or advance any one, or disparage any other, faith or belief.'" Macbeth said he didn't have a problem with the way the chair selected people from the audience to offer the prayer. Previous chairs have picked ministers if they happened to be in the audience, other commissioners, the clerk of courts or the county attorney. What happens, Richie asked, if the invited minister doesn't show up? The chairman could call on another person, Macbeth offered. "Put in a paragraph about that," Richie directed. Richie also quibbled over the wording, "Please rise for the invocation." He preferred, "Please rise if you wish." Since the item wasn't on agenda, Richie and other commissioners felt more comfortable voting if it was scheduled. It will be added next month. gpinnell@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5828