Local News

Should Highlands end low-income housing program?

SEBRING - Highlands County commissioners considered whether the county should even have a housing program, a descendant of local pioneers demanded that the county take care of his family cemetery, and commissioners scheduled a workshop next month to set goals for 2014.

After Community Programs Manager Chris Benson asked for approval of the county's 2013-2016 Local Housing Assistance Plan, Commissioner Don Elwell asked if all borrowers would be required to repay their loans.

That's up to the board, Benson replied.

"The housing board has officially disbanded, and the chairman was kind enough to put me on that this year," Elwell comically cleared his throat - "for which I cannot thank him enough."

Dick Noel rose from the audience: "The minimum payment, if they have financial problems, is $25 a month? That's fine for buying a bicycle. But for a house, it should be raised to $100. And zero interest for 10 or 20 or 30 years? My kids didn't get 'no interest,' nor did I. And if their house goes into foreclosure, they can tap into the foreclosure fund. That's pretty nice."

Low-income borrowers can qualify for a home up to $189,000, Noel noted.

That's because Highlands County is lumped into the Orlando area, said County Administrator June Fisher. Low-income buyers are really paying from $50,000 to $80,000, Benson said.

"Is this program mandated by the state?" John Drozinski asked.

"I would refer to it that way," Benson answered. All 67 Florida counties have one.

"Is it mandated? That was my question."

Commission Chair Greg Harris turned to Ross Macbeth.

"It is not," the county attorney flatly stated.

"What happens if we decided not to participate," Drozinski asked.

"Another county would get the money." Harris answered.

"Or another entity," Benson said.

"It's just my opinion, but I think the county ought to get out of the housing business," Drozinski suggested. "If could find some entity to take it over and get the county out of it, I would do it."

"We would have to monitor the entity," Benson said.

"It would be just another layer of confusion," Commissioner Jim Brooks said. He would favor the move only if the second entity took the county out of the loop. "Right now, I don't think I would be in favor of it."

"This whole discussion is coming after we got a scathing audit," Noel pointed out.

In December, the clerk of courts released an audit that showed a Highlands County Housing Department employee received a $5,294 home repair loan in 2009, for which monthly payments were deferred. The entire loan may be forgiven next year. Also, the audit showed non-payments of mortgages over years, that the department lost track of mortgages and did not file mortgages for months after loans were made.

"Thank you for bringing those points up," Harris said. "I can assure it's on the radar."

By a 5-0 vote, the board set the interest rate at 2 percent.

Cleve Prescott, who now lives in Texas, approached commissioners about his family graveyard, which he said contains members of the Prescott, Crews and Whidden families. "They were here before there was a DeSoto County, there before there was even a state."

"Is that the Hollenberg Farm on Vaughn Road?" Brooks asked.

Yes, Prescott verified. "I've only been there once. It's now overgrown and abandoned." In December 2012, he was cut up by bushes and stickers. Workers didn't know the lot was a cemetery and were throwing brush onto it.

There are no signs, he said. "It's impossible to tell it's a cemetery. I want to get you guys to maintain it and give it some signs."

The Whidden graveyard is being maintained, Prescott said. "The Prescott graveyard, you'd never know it was there."

Quoting a state statute, Prescott said that if a cemetery isn't maintained for more than six months, it becomes a municipality or county responsibility. However, he added, the public can sue the property owner.

"I assume we're going to forward them a bill?" Handley asked.

"I know there are more abandoned cemeteries out there than this one," Macbeth said.

"I'd say more than a dozen," Brook said. "I don't want us to open a can of worms, I don't want to make any commitments to family cemeteries, unless we have to by law."

"You have no choice, according to the statute," Prescott said. "I'm living in Texas right now, but next December, I'm going to come back and check on it."

Macbeth promised to research the law and report back to the board in two weeks.

Fisher suggested a goal-setting workshop at 1 p.m,, after the Feb. 18 meeting.

EMS Director Harvey Craven recognized the retirement of Edward Ezell, with 38 years of service, and Michael Rihner, with 39 years of service.

Ben F. Oswald, District 1, and Pauline Connolly, District 3, were appointed to the Highlands County Library Advisory Board.

Marvin L. Desselle was appointed to represent the Lake Placid area on the Veterans Advisory Board.

Tractor Road, from 1.08 miles south of Lunsford Road to Lunsford Road, will be paved with a $706,500 grant from the Small County Outreach Program Agreement.