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Energy Savings - School District trimming utility bills through conservation program

SEBRING — Cutting the lights off and powering down for the weekends and holidays has paid off in lower energy bills for the School Board of Highlands.

The School Board will consider consider continuing its miserly ways with energy by extending its contract with the Dallas-based energy conservation company Cenergistic.

The School Board initially approved a contract with the Cenergistic in February 2015 to create an energy efficient environment within the district’s schools. The district’s cost that first fiscal year was $337,850, which included a monthly fee and software costs.

Among the district’s energy saving initiatives was putting LED lights in gymnasiums to replace the big metal hydride lights, which use a much greater amount of energy compared to the LED lights that provide more light.

The program includes a Cenergistic energy specialist assigned solely to the Highlands District. That person from the start, and for five years now, has been Tracy Robinson.

Conducting building energy audits, which take about 30 minutes to an hour, is one of her duties.

She makes a list on her smartphone of anything left on or things running that shouldn’t be running, Robinson said.

Her workday hours are sporadic depending on what she is doing with no set hours, but she definitely puts in eight to 10 hours per day, Robinson said. Her duties include: computer work, audits, meetings and tracking water bills that have to be put in the computer manually.

Robinson schedules the air conditioning at all the schools.

“Once the day scheduled is set that is finished, but anytime they have an event — basketball game, volleyball game, or the country fair at the middle school — anything outside the normal day schedule, I schedule,” Robinson said. “So I monitor the activities after-hours.”

The majority of schools are online so she can control the air conditioning from her computer, but five of the schools she has to go to and set the programmable thermostats.

“I am basically on call for the plant operators and administrators 24-hours a day,” Robinson said.

The energy company, in its initial contract with the board, estimated that the School Board of Highlands County would see a net cumulative savings of more than $6.6 million over a 10-year period.

So far the savings seem behind that pace though the district’s monthly fee in the contract extension is lower, which would boost the net savings.

The 36-month contract extension, which if approve by the School Board, would become effective July 1, 2020 with a $12,416 fixed monthly rate, which is a 55% discount on the current average monthly rate.

Recently, Cenergistic provided the following “key statistics” with the district’s energy program:

• $1,622,387 cumulative cost avoidance savings to date.

• 9% reduction in energy use.

• 1,795 energy building audits performed.

• 17 buildings “Energy Star” certified.

The School Board of Highlands County will meet at 5:30 p.m., Tuesday in the Garland Boggus Board Room, 426 School St., Sebring.


Highlands_news-sun
Impeachment trial heads to end in frenetic week

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial heads toward a historic conclusion this week, with senators all-but-certain to acquit him on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress after narrowly rejecting Democratic demands to summon witnesses.

There’s still plenty of drama to unfold before Wednesday’s vote.

The vote is expected to cap a months-long investigation spurred by a whistleblower complaint that Trump improperly withheld U.S. military aid from Ukraine in a bid to pressure it to launch investigations into 2020 Democratic rival Joe Biden.

In the Senate, Republicans hold a 53-47 advantage and there’s nowhere near the two-thirds needed for conviction and removal. On Friday, Republicans blocked consideration of new witnesses and documents, setting up the speedy acquittal vote for the coming week.

It will be a frenetic next few days.

Today, House impeachment managers and Trump’s defense team return to the Senate floor to make closing arguments in the trial, the same day the 2020 presidential election kicks off with the first votes cast in the Iowa caucuses.

On Tuesday, Trump will deliver his State of the Union address.

Will some Democratic senators join Republicans to acquit Trump, allowing him to claim a bipartisan “exoneration”? Will Trump gloat or express any regret over the Ukraine matter after key GOP senators during the trial criticized his actions as improper, but ultimately not impeachable? Will Wednesday’s Senate vote be the final say in the matter?

What to watch as the third impeachment trial in U.S. history heads to a close:

CLOSING ARGUMENTS

The trial resumes at 11 a.m. today for closing arguments by the two legal teams, with each side getting two hours. After the arguments, the Senate goes back into normal session to allow lawmakers to give speeches about impeachment on the floor from late today into Wednesday, before they reconvene as the impeachment court at 4 p.m. Wednesday and vote.

With Trump’s acquittal all but assured, one of the biggest questions may be whether any Democrats join with Republicans to clear him of charges. There is strong political significance.

Three Democratic senators hailing from states where Trump remains popular — Doug Jones of Alabama, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — remained quiet over the weekend about their intentions.

They were among the 47 Democratic and independent senators who voted unsuccessfully to extend Trump’s trial by summoning additional witnesses.

If one or more of the Democratic senators votes to acquit Trump — even voting against one article of impeachment while supporting the other — it could alienate some Democratic voters, mark their legacies and let Trump spend his reelection campaign asserting that he was cleared by a bipartisan vote.

Manchin indicated to reporters Friday he probably won’t decide his vote “until walking in” to the chamber on Wednesday.

Jones has said he will announce his decision prior to Wednesday’s vote, making sure he gets it “right.” Sinema hasn’t indicated when she will signal her intentions.

WHAT WILL TRUMP SAY?

Trump gives his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, and with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., perched behind him during his prime-time address, the White House has been coy as to whether Trump will reference the impeachment trial.

Trump “is gratified the Senate will set a schedule for his acquittal as quickly as possible. We do not believe that schedule interferes with his ability to deliver a strong, confident State of the Union,” White House aide Eric Ueland said Friday.

A year ago, Trump made no direct reference to his shutdown of government spurred by a dispute with Democrats over border wall funding in the speech he eventually delivered to Congress. He used his address to call for a “new era of cooperation.”

Still, there were plenty of subtle digs at the time, including when Trump warned those gathered against pursuing “foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous partisan investigations.”

THE FINAL VOTE

It’s similarly unclear whether Trump could express regret or remorse over his Ukraine actions, though senators aren’t holding their breath.

The vote to convict or acquit Trump is scheduled for 4 p.m. Wednesday.

Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee was among several Republicans last Friday who voted to block additional witnesses and draw the trial to a close, even though he and others described Trump’s actions as “inappropriate” and “wrong.” Asked Sunday if he would want to hear Trump express regret, as President Bill Clinton did after his impeachment trial, Alexander said he doesn’t need to hear it.

“What I hope he would do is when he makes his State of the Union address, that he puts this completely behind him, never mentions it, and talks about what he thinks he’s done for the country and where we’re headed,” Alexander told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Alexander and other Republicans said that even if Trump committed offenses charged by the House, they are not impeachable — especially in an election year. They say voters should make that determination in November.

That leaves Trump’s fate still hanging in the balance.

A NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday found majorities of American voters believe that Trump abused his power and obstructed Congress, but split largely among party lines over whether he should be removed from office.

The poll, conducted Jan. 26-29, found 46% of registered voters believed Trump should be removed from office as a result of the trial, vs. 49% who said he should remain — basically unchanged from a 48-48 split in December.

NOT OVER YET?

An acquittal for Trump on Wednesday wouldn’t mean the end of the Ukraine matter in other respects.

Both Pelosi and Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, the lead impeachment manager, haven’t ruled out the possibility of compelling former national security adviser John Bolton to testify in the House should Trump be acquitted.

In an unpublished manuscript, Bolton has written that the president asked him during an Oval Office meeting in early May to bolster his effort to get Ukraine to investigate Democrats, according to a person who read the passage and told The Associated Press; Trump denies that. Bolton also wrote that Trump said he wanted to maintain a freeze on military assistance to Ukraine until it aided the political investigations. His book is due out in March. Senators ultimately voted against hearing his testimony.

“This is in the Senate now,” Pelosi told reporters last week. “We’ll see what happens after that.”

Republicans, for their part, aren’t pledging to fully close the case, either. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he planned to call Joe Biden as part of the congressional oversight process into possible corruption in Ukraine.


Highlands_news-sun
Abortion, nude beaches, bears on Florida's legislative plate

TALLAHASSEE — Wondering how many bills the Florida Legislature has sent to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in the first three weeks of its annual 60-day session?

The answer is zero. None. Zippo. Nada. Zilch.

But one of the first bills expected to hit the governor’s desk is a measure that will require girls under the age of 18 to get a parent’s permission before having an abortion. The Senate is expected to pass the bill in the upcoming week, sending it to the House, which has made the legislation a priority.

It expands a law that requires parents of minors to be notified if their daughters get an abortion. But right now, parents don’t have a say in the decision. Similar to current law, girls would be able to petition a court to get a waiver from the requirement if they are victims of abuse or incest, or if they can convince a judge that getting their parent’s permission would cause them harm.

While that’s been one of the most talked about bills this session, there are hundreds more being considered by lawmakers.

A bill aimed at illegal bear hunting will hit the House floor in the week ahead, while a similar bill moves through Senate committees.

While Florida allowed a limited bear hunt in 2015, killing the large mammals remains illegal. The Florida black bear population has bounced back in recent years and they now number about 4,000 around the state.

But Republican Rep. David Smith doesn’t think it’s right that the penalties for illegally killing bears isn’t as harsh as they are for killing deer or wild turkey out of season. His bill would increase fines and penalties for killing a bear, or for being in possession of or selling a dead bear.

Another bill coming up would raise the age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21. The measure also would add new restrictions to smoking near schools, require anyone under the age of 30 be carded before they can buy tobacco and would only allow cigarette vending machines in places that deny access to anyone under 21.

A bill making its second House committee stop would allow city and county commissioners and school board members to carry guns to meetings if they have a concealed weapons permit. Guns are now banned at government meetings, but supporters point to shootings around the country and say meetings can sometimes get contentious.

An ethics bill to ban politicians from donating leftover campaign money to a charity where they’re employed is heading to the full House, while a similar measure is moving through Senate committees.

And there are a bunch of bills to add to the hundred-plus specialty license plates Florida already has, including plates recognizing beekeepers, the Highwaymen artists known for their vivid Florida landscapes, and gopher tortoises, to name just a few.

Finally, a Senate committee is taking up a bill that would make clear in state law that it’s OK to be naked on a nude beach.

It’s illegal to expose sexual organs in public, but Florida has a number of clothing-optional beaches and a legislative analysis of the bill says nude tourism is a multibillion industry. Democratic Sen. Jason Pizzo wants to make sure people who enjoy Florida’s nude beaches aren’t charged with a crime.


News
AP Council discusses adding building official

AVON PARK — While Councilwoman Maria Sutherland made a case for the City to have a building official, Mayor Garrett Anderson believes the City should continue with the County handling building department issues.

At a recent council meeting, Sutherland said the council should be thinking about what it needs in the future.

She spoke with a county building official recently and the county collects about $63,000 in fees, permitting and issues, for Avon Park in 2019. It can fluctuate due to the economy.

They had 900 building inspections, not including code enforcement issues, Sutherland said.

“I have no objection in raising taxes as long as I know what the taxes are going to be used for,” she said. “During the last budget we were proposed an incremental tax increase, but there was not plan to use those taxes.

“If we know there is going to be a need to really revamp our Code Enforcement Department, I believe it really needs to have that done,” Sutherland said. By hiring a building official, who would also serve as code enforcement official, it would really fix a lot of the problems that the City has in communicating with the County.

It is not their job to review our code it is only their job to review code for building/construction, she said.

If it is done in-house, it is not a big money maker, but it will at least get the City in control of its destiny when it comes to the Code Department, Sutherland said. A “monumental change” is needed to get a better appearance for the City.

Central Florida Planning is doing a lot of the City’s permitting now, but they are not driving on the City’s streets and looking at Code Enforcement issues, she said.

“The system has been flawed for so long that we have settled for what we have,” Sutherland said. “For too many years we have just let it slide and I think our community reflects our lack of oversight in that area.”

Councilwoman Brenda Gray said she agrees in part with Sutherland, but she believes there is enough money in the budget without raising taxes.

Mayor Garrett Anderson responded to Sutherland who commented on Land Development Regulation (LDR) issues.

“The only reason we have had the LDR issue lately is because of the turnover,” Anderson said. There were many many years that the City didn’t have LDR issues because we had more consistency, we had employees carry over year after year. Only in the last six to eight years have we had all this turnover and controversy.”

Anderson said he has heard from many contractors that they enjoy dealing with County because they are consistent.

Mrs. Daniels who has a rental property in the City, questioned the City’s rental inspection program.

“Avon Park needs a lot of help, but I don’t think your Code Enforcement really understands what they are looking at,” she said.

After discussion on the rental property inspection program, Sutherland and Anderson continued with their opposing views on having an in-house building official.

Sutherland said it would be an administrative position and require somebody with a little more education.

Anderson said, “I just think we have to train the staff that we have. You don’t want to take on a new project until you master what you have got.”

Deputy Mayor Stanley Spurlock said couldn’t the city have a person who is knowledgeable on both building and code enforcement matters?

“Let us see how well it goes there Stanley,” Anderson responded. “I think it is going to turn into a hit squad.”

Sutherland and Spurlock asked Anderson what he meant.

“There is going to end up being a handful of people who will get penalized,” Anderson said. “It is not going to be consistent.

“If there is a problem in Code Enforcement and they need training, hire someone to train them,” he said. “Taking on a new department, taking on the building department, I think you are shooting yourself in the foot.”

After a lengthy discussion Sutherland asked the Council how many of them would be interested in reconstituting a building department like the City had in 1980s into the 1990s?

Stanley said he would be interested.

Anderson said he was against it.

Gray said she was interested in looking into it just to see how much it would cost.

Council Member Barnard said, “I have got to go to the bathroom,” which prompted a chuckle from the Council.

On Saturday Barnard said, “I think it would be good if we had our own building department. I just don’t know how long of a process it would take to get somebody in there who would be qualified.”