Local News

Plans proceed for new sheriff’s office

— Will 60 sheriff’s deputies remain at Liberty Star Plaza for another two years, or will those analysts, crime scene investigators, canine officers, Special Investigations Unit and South Bureau road deputies move to three partly vacant county buildings?

Liberty Star’s landlord is asking for a 3 percent increase in rent: $154,000 for the first year and $160,000 for the second year, which ends in September 2016. That gives Sheriff Susan Benton a few months to move into a proposed new office, if it’s built by then.

“In my mind, that’s May or June of 2016,” said Ramon Gavarrete. The county engineer met last month with architects and sheriff’s staffers to firm up details like the size of the proposed building — 42,000 square feet, what should be added or deleted, where to park the cars, where to retain the storm water, and which trees to keep on the two lots at

On Sept. 8, Gavarrete will meet with the Downtown Sebring Community Redevelopment Agency to work out details like materials to be used, and whether the look of the building fits the neighborhood.

After they heard the sheriff might lease or buy the downtown SunTrust building, Liberty owners approached and offered a better deal.

Benton paid the three-year lease with $498,000 Florida Department of Law Enforcement grant that was funded by a special federal stimulus package.

“This will give the (county commissioners) time to take a deep breath and see where they’re heading,” Benton said in 2009. About one-sixth of the staff moved out of crowded and dilapidated quarters at the sheriff’s office on Fernleaf, and five years later the deputies and staffers are still there.

The current sheriff’s office and jail on Fernleaf is still bursting at the seams with age, inmates and personnel. Six years ago, 911 radio equipment was in a ladies room, sewers were backed up, and bathrooms, doorways and hallways didn’t meet ADA standards. Deputies and secretaries were bunched together in every available square foot, Benton said at the time. “Some of them are in small, little, closet rooms.”

Some of those conditions still exist.

Gavarrete said the county will go out for bids on the new sheriff’s office in four months.

“We try to pre-qualify contractors first,” Gavarrete explained. “You don’t want a residential contractor building the sheriff’s office.”

Since Highlands County is $10.8 million short in this year’s budget, Benton looked at three alternatives: empty space at the health department, and space available five days a week in Lake Placid and Avon Park.

“So I am exploring that,” Benton said. However, her staff would be further fragmented. “Functions would be split up everywhere, and it would increase the opportunity to make mistakes.”

Besides, Benton and Assistant County Administrator Randy Vosburg said the moving costs for a backup generator, data lines, phone lines and furniture could be extensive.

“We have a lot of infrastructure there,” Benton said. “And quite frankly, there is the interruption to our operations.”

“It may outweigh a slight increase,” Vosburg said. “Of course, the board may say no increase.”

If Benton, who turned 65 last week, does not run for a fourth term, her last day in office will be January 2017. However, it doesn’t distress her that she may never occupy the building she’s pushed for more than 10 years.

“I don’t intend to be a lame duck in any way,” Benton said. “It never has been about me personally. We would be way less effective without the proper infrastructure in place.”

The building will be paid off with the one-penny sales tax, Gavarrete got in a plug. “Everybody that buys anything in the county pays for a little bit of it.”