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House pitches wide-ranging tax package

TALLAHASSEE — Floridians would get sales-tax breaks before hurricane season and the new school year, while taxes on commercial leases and cell phones and other communications services would be trimmed, under a tax package rolled out Tuesday in the House.

The $100.3 million proposal is a starting point as the House and Senate prepare to negotiate a budget during the next month. It also calls for increasing a refund on aviation-fuel taxes, eliminating an unused pool of money for professional sports stadiums and expanding a tax-distribution requirement about charter schools.

House Ways & Means Chairman Bryan Avila, R-Miami Springs, said the goal was to address as many areas as possible with the money available.

“We’re trying to cover as much ground as possible,” Avila said after the proposal was introduced. “This is just the first step in the process. The tax package evolves as it moves through the committee process. … Certainly, there is room for there to be changes to be made.”

A number of the tax proposals are moving as individual bills in the Senate, such as an aviation-fuel tax bill (SB 1192), a reduction in the communications services tax (SB 1174) and a 10-day back-to-school tax “holiday” (SB 542).

House Ways & Means Committee members expressed a desire for a deeper cut to the commercial-lease tax and the communications services tax, which is collected on cell phones, cable TV and home satellite services.

Rep. Al Jacquet, D-Riviera Beach, supported the tax package being as broad as possible.

“The airline fuel tax, that is a tax that perhaps doesn’t directly affect every Floridian, but we understand the importance of that, of incentivizing more tourism, more flights in and out and more travel,” Jacquet said.

The largest part of the package is a proposed three-day back-to-school tax holiday in August, which would allow shoppers to avoid paying sales taxes on clothes that cost $60 or less, school supplies that cost $15 or less and the first $1,000 of the cost of personal computers. The proposal is projected to save shoppers $41.8 million.

A disaster-relief tax “holiday” at the end of May would allow people to avoid sales taxes when buying items ranging from battery packages to portable generators, totaling a projected $5.6 million tax reduction.

The second largest projected amount of savings, $24.9 million, would come through a 0.5 percentage-point reduction in the communications services tax.

A proposal to cut the commercial-lease tax by 0.1 percentage point, to 5.4% would generate a $15.8 million savings next fiscal year. The commercial-lease tax has been a longtime target of business leaders.

Another $3.6 million reduction to state and local revenue would come through the aviation fuel refund. The proposal would expand a refund now available on the 4.27-cent-per-gallon excise tax on aviation fuel. The refund in the package would go from 1.42 cents per gallon to 2.38 cents per gallon.

Parts of the package would affect local governments.

Controversy about the charter school issue nearly scuttled a $121 million tax package approved in 2019. The issue involves distributing money from local half-cent sales taxes to charter schools. The debate during the 2019 session, in part, involved whether distribution should be applied to existing half-cent sales taxes. The House and Senate compromised by making the requirement apply to future referendums involving teacher pay and school security.

Avila said the new proposal would cover referendums that deal with any capital outlay project.

Among other things, the package also would eliminate a stadium-funding program that has been a target of the House since it was approved in 2014. Avila also has been moving a separate bill this year on the topic (HB 6057).

The program, which makes available $13 million a year in tax dollars for work involving professional stadiums and events administered by the Breeders’ Cup Limited and NASCAR. Amid House opposition over the years, the money has never been touched and stadium owners stopped applying a couple of years ago.

The program was set up to prevent a repeat of the type of lobbying that occurred in 2013 when the Miami Dolphins unsuccessfully sought $350 million for stadium upgrades.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has asked for a tax package that includes $65 million in savings for shoppers through an eight-day back-to-school tax holiday on clothing, school supplies and personal computers and a 10-day tax holiday to help prepare for the hurricane season.

Holy cow! It's Jr. Livestock Auction time

SEBRING — Boots propped up, pizza in hand, teens, pre-teens and country music playing from the radio on Tuesday, belied the exhausting hard work the 4-H members have put into raising the livestock they had at the Highlands County Fairgrounds. Future Farmers of America and 4-H members show all manner of animals that would be found on a farm including cows and steers, poultry and goats, swine and rabbits.

Layton Sapp has been a 4-H member for 13 years and is showing a cow. He shared the importance of clubs that have a focus on agriculture.

“This is a growing industry,” he said. “We are raising quality beef cows. This is the leading industry behind oranges.”

Layton said the members normally get their cows from ranches in July at about 400-500 pounds. The members have until the fair to get their weight up for the show and ready for the livestock auction that takes place at 6 p.m. Thursday.

The cows are not trained when they are purchased off the ranch.

“We learn the proper way to handle them,” Layton said. “It takes a lot of work to get them to trust you. You can get stomped on and you can get hurt.”

Matthew Mizell is one of the youngest members showing one of the largest cows this season. His cow is a Charolais named Clyde who weighed in at 1,328 pounds. Watching the youngsters in the ring with animals that outweigh them by some 1,200 pounds is a little daunting, especially when they decide they have had enough and want to kick or run.

“I show cows because I like to learn to take care of steers and human beings,” Matthew said.

Paula Sapp has been a 4-H leader for 14 years and has no plans to stop anytime soon.

“The kids spend countless hours on them,” she said. “They get up in the mornings and have to take care of them. They have to work with them after school, too.”

The kids have washed and blow dried — yes, you read that right — and taught their livestock their best manners. Unbeknownst to the cows, that primping and pampering was for naught as they are going to be auctioned to go to the market for eating.

The kids have all named their animals but know not to become attached because the animal will eventually be slaughtered.

“The way I see it, I have given them a better life,” Layton Sapp said. “They get to have feed all day instead of being on a feed lot.”

Matthew saw things a bit differently. He said he would be a little sad but also glad when the auction was over.

By the time the livestock gets to the auction, the young men and women could easily spent over $2,000 on their animal. It is important to get a good auction price in order to make up for the outlay.

When an animal doesn’t make weight, the residents of Highlands County have rallied around these hardworking young people.

One pig who did not meet weight this year is being raffled off on social media. Other animals have been bought by residents in the community to support the kids and enable them to buy another show animal in July.

County residents really rally around the agricultural clubs to ensure the youngster’s success, Paula Sapp said. When Ayla Gross was in a terrible accident that threatened her life, the Sapps took her cow to their house to care for it. When the doctor gave her clearance, Ayla was back in the saddle, so to speak.

These kids must really like what they do because it is hard work and expensive to boot, pardon the pun. Sapp is no softy and openly admits that she makes the kids work. What she doesn’t tell you is she spoils them with pizza and soda on their breaks.

“If you wanna play with the big dogs, you gotta practice with the big dogs,” she said after telling one of the smaller kids to get into the ring with his heifer.

“I enjoy the kids’ passion for showing their livestock and helping the community during the rest of the year, like with the food drives. I love their hard work and ethics.”

Council will not spend big bucks on sign

LAKE PLACID — Town Council unanimously decided not to spend over $17,000 on a LED reader board sign for the Government Center on Monday night at the regular council meeting. The request was made by Town Administrator Phil Williams to replace the current sign that no longer functions in January; council gave Williams the green light to get some bids on the sign.

The purpose of the reader board would be to promote public meetings and communicate information during emergencies. In January, Williams said he had already spent $500 trying to repair the current sign. Williams brought a bid for a double-sided single (red on black) colored sign from Stewart Signs for $17,000.

“I was told by the church that had been in here, that the sign that we have now had been hit by lightning,” Councilwoman Debra Worley said. “So, I’m not surprised it doesn’t work. … I was hoping that we could have two signs.”

Worley said she would have like to see two signs on the reader board to communicate events and items such as road work and for emergencies to help the public. She also said she would like to at least have a one-sided sign.

In January, Councilman Greg Sapp said he was “indifferent” to the sign. He reiterated that sentiment in Monday’s meeting. “It’s a helluva lot of money to spend on a sign,” he said.

He said the sign is partially blocked by trees and is in a dangerous part of southbound travel on U.S. 27. Williams said he was indifferent also, but joking told the council to not make him try to make the current sign work if they voted not to have a new sign. They promised Williams they would not ask him to fix the sign.

Councilman Charles Wilson said it was not a prudent time for the expense and if it was really a needed item, it could be revisited during the next budget workshops. The matter was dropped.

In other action, the Lake Placid Town Council was asked by Williams to consider raising the pay for the Special Magistrate position. The attorney now makes $40 per half hour/$80 per hour. Williams asked the other towns how much their Special Magistrates get paid and got no response.

However, he was able to determine the Special Magistrate in Avon Park was being paid $110 per hour.

Councilman Ray Royce made the motion in the affirmative, Sapp seconded the motion and it was unanimously approved.

AP approves Schrader's employment contract

AVON PARK — By a 3-2 vote, the City Council approved incoming City Manager Mark Schrader’s employment contract.

Mayor Garrett Anderson and Councilman Jim Barnard voted against approval of the contract.

At Monday’s council meeting, Barnard said he believed the vacation and sick leave to be excessive for someone who is being hired brand new. He said five weeks of vacation the first year is excessive and three weeks of sick leave is “absolutely ridiculous,” he said.

“If we are going to hire somebody and give them three weeks sick leave, I don’t think the guy is healthy enough to hire. I don’t know anybody anywhere who has gotten three weeks sick leave,” he said.

The city manager has a lot to do so he needs to be on the job, Barnard said. “If he took all the vacation and sick leave he would be off for two months in the years.”

Councilwoman Brenda Gray said she saw nothing wrong with the contract. “People don’t normally take time off if they are dedicated to their job unless they really, really need it,” she said.

Councilwoman Maria Sutherland said she was OK with the contract, which has a six-month evaluation period.

“His plate will be full. If he doesn’t like it, he can walk out with dignity; if we don’t like it, we can send him on his way and no hard feelings because after six months we will all know where we stand with this individual,” she said.

Schrader said in his 35 years in law enforcement he did not take one day of sick leave.

“If you look at all my evaluations at the Sheriff’s Office, when it comes to being there, the sheriff always wrote in there, ‘I had to make him take time off,’” Schrader said.

“I am here to work.”

Schrader said he has received “congratulations” and “condolences” on being selected for the city manager position. Someone he knows very well told him, “congratulations, but you won’t be there very long because no one is.”

He has read in the newspaper and he heard Council say there is a cloud over the process and “there is a cloud over me,” Schrader said. “If there is a cloud over the process, I get it and I have to agree with the mayor on the process.

He doesn’t believe there is a cloud over him, Schrader said.

“I believe working together we can make a difference for the city. I don’t care who voted for me; I don’t care who voted against me,” Schrader said.

Schrader will start work on Monday, Feb. 17.