Local News

Parkway, new sheriff's office will be funded

SEBRING - Sebring Parkway, a new sheriff's office, and the IDA-EDC all will move forward, Highlands County commissioners decided Tuesday.
The nearly $500,000 to pay Yarbrough Tire for enough land to build turn lanes on Parkway Phase 2 was on the consent agenda, which was approved without discussion along with four other items. Phase 2 connects downtown Sebring to U.S. 27 at Highlands Regional Medical Center.
As for Parkway Phase 3, which links downtown Sebring to South Florida State College, Don Elwell dissented with the other three commissioners, who chose to borrow up to $1.2 million from the landfill closure fund.
On Feb. 18, the commissioners picked their highest priority: to build a $9.1 million sheriff's office, but they didn't want to borrow the money. Instead, they asked Florida Department of Transportation to allow the county to temporarily withdraw $3.676 million in county funds earmarked for Phase 3.
On March 7, FDOT's district secretary, Billy Hattaway, replied: no way. Commissioners had been willing to put off both phases of the parkway, but they didn't want to lose a $3 million FDOT grant for Phase 3, which Hattaway's letter said would be withdrawn.
Therefore, County Engineer Ramone Gavarrete presented three new choices on Tuesday. Commissioners selected Option 2, which would complete the new sheriff's office and both phases of the parkway.
Commissioners rejected two other options.
Option 1 was to give back the $3 million grant for Phase 3, reallocate $3.6 million in county money anyway, build the new sheriff's office, and seek a new grant in later years.
"But there's no guarantee we would get a new grant," Gavarrete warned.
Option 3 would involve going back again to FDOT, splitting Phase 2 funding into two phases, allocating Phase 3 funding to Phase 2, and other steps. He ran that idea past other county staffers.
"They said that would be creative, but they didn't jump with excitement," Gavarrete said, admitted the Option 3 was "a shot in the dark."
Option 2 was best, which he recommended: Leave Parkway Phase 3 funding in place and reallocate $3.6 million from Phase 2 to the new sheriff's office. Since Phase 3 would need $1.1 million more in funding, borrow $1.2 million from the landfill closure fund.
"I hate the uncertainty in regards to the infrastructure surtax," Elwell said. A one-cent sales tax, which the county has used to build roads and buildings, expires in 2019. That's where the millions are coming from to build the sheriff's office and the parkway.
"I am in favor of doing what we need to do to put it on the primary ballot," Elwell said, which happens on Aug. 26. "We need to do that as soon as possible."
The school board has suggested a new one-half cent sales tax, so citizens would vote on the county tax first.
Elwell disagreed with Gavarrete on the legality of borrowing from the landfill closure fund. "There are statutes, and they don't say you can do that. They don't say you can use it for a road."
Brooks agreed with Gavarrete: "Our landfill isn't going to be closed for many, many years. It's not like we're going to need that money tomorrow. And if we get recycling going, we will be using the landfill even less. Besides, that's taxpayer money."
"I'm with Brooks," Chair Greg Harris said. "I'm not concerned about the $1.2 million.
Commissioner Jack Richie voted with the 3-1 majority. Commissioner Ron Handley was absent.
Commissioners were disappointed with just about everything Executive Director Stephen Weeks said and did, both at Tuesday's meeting and because the Industrial Development Authority missed opportunities to market Highlands County at 12 Hours of Sebring and at the U.S. Sport Aviation Expo at Sebring Regional Airport. Both events attracted national and international crowds, Elwell and Richie pointed out.
"They were coming to Highlands County in droves," Elwell said. "Did we have any kind of presence out there?"
Well, Weeks replied, the IDA-EDC coordinated with the Cohan Radio Group booth.
"That's a huge opportunity we missed out on," Elwell insisted.
Later, former IDA-EDC chair John Shoop came to the microphone and agreed. "We dropped the ball."
Weeks gave what the commissioners suggested was a lackluster speech to save the IDA-EDC. Richie said he and other commissioners had heard a much more informative presentation two weeks ago.
Last year, commissioners unanimously voted to defund the Industrial Development Authority, which shares an executive director and a board of directors with its sister agency, the Economic Development Authority.
For the past six months, the IDA-EDC has reassessed its mission, Weeks said. Because the agencies had to exist on the money in the bank, four staffers were laid off. Only Weeks remains in the Avon Park office.
"I don't think anyone on this commission was going to not fund the EDC today," Elwell revealed.
After a one-hour discussion, Richie spoke for the entire commission. "I think the point has been made: the IDA-EDC is essential."
Elwell pointed out that the EDC has raised only $30,000 from private donors. That's difficult, Shoop said, in a distressed economy.
"You're going to have less than six moths before we talk about this again," Elwell said. "You need to begin as much outreach as you possibly can."
Elwell moved to approve $97,600 in new funding, and the commission agreed, 4-0.