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Debris agreement: County will need interlocal with cities for FEMA reimbursement

SEBRING — County Engineer Clinton Howerton Jr. wants to get an agreement in place between the county and municipalities on storm debris removal.

He has a draft agreement where municipalities would pay up to 25% of the overall cost of debris removal after a disaster, but city and town councils have not looked it over nor approved it.

County commissioners approved it, though, without municipal approval, given that municipal boards could review the agreement now, suggest changes and approve it at a later date.

That could even be an emergency meeting before a storm arrives, said Sebring City Manager Scott Noethlich.

At their last meeting, Howerton told commissioners how the Federal Emergency Management Agency looks to local agencies to do recovery efforts, but demands that those entities have interlocal agreements in place if one entity does recovery efforts for several jurisdictions.

After Hurricane Irma, the county stepped in to collect debris for all the municipalities because the county already had a contract signed with an outside service.

The problem, Howerton said, is that the county did not have interlocal agreements in place with the incorporated areas.

“I hesitate to say this on public record, but we didn’t have an agreement in place, and that was really dangerous for us to have done because we might not have been reimbursed by FEMA,” Howerton said.

Luckily, FEMA did reimburse the county, but could always audit its payments and “de-obligate us,” Howerton said, resulting in the county having to pay FEMA back.

To prevent that problem, Howerton would like to have that agreement in place. Usually, he said, any entity that collects garbage in an area also has to collect storm debris in that area.

Howerton wanted to get an agreement in place before last year’s hurricane season, which fortunately did not have any landfalls that traveled to Highlands County.

Now it’s the middle of the 2020 season and he wants something in place because the municipalities still don’t have debris collection contracts.

“And I’m fine with us doing the work, but we need to have some kind of agreement in place to protect us,” Howerton said.

It’s a lot easier now, he said, to track where loads are gathered based on addresses, and then assign that cost into either the county or city portion of the cost.

The county pays per cubic yard to have the material collected, Howerton said.

Commissioner Jim Brooks asked if the county paid the debris-hauling contractor first, and County Administrator Randy Vosburg said yes, approximately $15 million in county reserves to collect all the storm debris in the county.

The county averaged a 88%-90% reimbursal rate, Vosburg said.

Commission Chair Ron Handley asked if the county would then ask cities to pay the 12% remainder.

Brooks asked if Vosburg had discussed this with city officials. Vosburg said most have the same position, that it’s not a cost they should have to incur and it’s something the county should provide.

“I guess its disconcerting that we often talk about these municipalities like they are another county or another state or another foreign country,” said Ray Royce, Lake Placid town councilman.

He said in-town residents pay the same fees and taxes to the county as everyone else.

“Even though we live in Lake Placid or Sebring or Avon Park, we still are Highlands County residents,” Royce said. “We shouldn’t have to cover and pay an additional amount of loss because frankly the state or FEMA are screwed up.”

He suggested commissioners would be unwise to approve an interlocal agreement cities would likely not adopt.

Sherry Sutphen, interim county attorney, said the agreement is meant to deal with the situation going forward from this year, and there was hope of having a clause to address this year, but the time needed to do it was a deterrent.

“Three city attorneys and a county attorney together in one room is a nightmare,” Sutphen said. “We tried to get something that we were comfortable with to bring to you all to get guidance to see if this is a route you would like us to take.”

Commissioner Arlene Tuck didn’t want to charge the cities for their portion, but have the county pay for its portion and collect directly from FEMA.

Royce also went further to point out that the municipalities already relieve the county of many services — law enforcement and garbage collection, for example — that the county would have to provide otherwise.

Sports tourism venues ranked in new study

SEBRING — Highlands County doesn’t have many facilities big enough to draw regional sports tournaments, but it could, and that could help stabilize the local tourist industry.

Sports tourism helps strengthen a tourism-based economy, said Casey Hartt, lead marketer for the Tourist Development Council. It resists economic and incidental struggles, such as a disaster.

People, especially sports parents, may cancel a pleasure trip when money gets tight or when there is a schedule conflict, but will make it work for a tournament, she said.

On Wednesday, the Tourist Development Council and local sports tourism stakeholders got to hear the results of a study by Huddle Up Group LLC, whose consultants toured the county, reviewed information on facilities and regular events and then interviewed staff and users of facilities to learn more about what the county has.

“That presentation was well received,” Hartt said.

Auditors looked at all facilities, Hartt said, including golf courses and the Sebring International Raceway (SIR), as well as shuffleboard courts and the Avon Park Mowerplex.

They ranked them as either community facilities, “tournament friendly” or “anchor facilities,” such as SIR, multi-field sports complex or Highlands Hammock State Park — ready to go for a sports event as intense as a 12-hour auto race or much simpler, like a 5K run.

Consultants found that Sebring has a limited supply of “anchor venues” ready right now to bring sports tourism, especially in light of many regional competitors having much to offer.

Facilities that already attract big events include Highlands County Multi-Sports Complex, Pinecrest Golf Course, Sun ‘N Lake of Sebring Golf Course and the Sebring International Raceway.

“The SIR added points that other places didn’t have,” Hartt said. “The 12 Hours [of Sebring] also added to that.”

Some need improvements, however.

The three largest diamond field facilities in Highlands County have 10 fields — Max Long Sports Complex — and five fields — Highlands County Multi-Sports Complex and Lake June Park Sports Complex.

The largest flat field facility, again the Multi-Sports Complex, has just four fields, but the report said national benchmarks to bring significant-sized tournaments require 12 diamond fields or 16 flat fields.

For basketball tournaments, South Florida State College has two courts, but a tournament-friendly facility needs four basketball courts, which can also serve as eight volleyball courts, the report said. An anchor facility needs eight basketball courts or 16 volleyball courts.

When it comes to swimming or indoor track facilities, or any indoor facilities big enough for tournaments, Highlands County has none, the report said.

The study, Hartt said, could help the TDC, stakeholders and the county commission see where they could invest in a facility to bring in tournaments.

“Does it have everything that could make it work?” is the question, Hartt said.

- Highlands County Multi-Sports Complex is a high-quality facility, but needs foul-ball netting for spectator safety, lights on every flat field, additional parking and targeted marketing.

- Highlands Hammock State Park, with roads for cycling and running events, needs better connectivity/transport between the park and local hotels/restaurants to boost attendance.

- H.L. Bishop Park could draw water sports, the report said, with a great viewing area from the shore and a community center with restrooms. It needs more parking.

- Lake Istokpoga and Windy Point Parks already have seen big bass tournaments in the past, but need weigh-in docks and more parking to compete.

- Lake Jackson and the Sebring Waterfront have hosted triathlons. It needs more amenities, such more quality parking.

- Lake June Park Sports Complex’s five diamonds are well done, but its three flat fields need lights and new goals.

- Max Long/YMCA softball/soccer’s one flat field has no tourism value. Its 10 grass diamonds could host local and regional events, but need scoreboards on each field, safety netting, field maintenance and more parking.

- Sebring Recreation Club’s 36 shuffleboard courts, 20 of them covered, along with the Avon Park Senior Activities Center’s 22 all-weather protected shuffleboard courts could bring tournaments with maintenance and marketing.

- Of South Florida State College’s multiple quality sports elements — baseball and softball stadiums, six tennis courts, a swimming pool, indoor gymnasium and outdoor volleyball courts — the best recommendation is improved seating at the baseball and softball stadiums.

Consultants ranked the remaining facilities in the county as community facilities, not big enough nor outfitted to host regional events. They could use improvements for local use, the report said.

They are the Ag Center Arena, Avon Park High School baseball stadium, Avon Park Mowerplex, Lee Palmer Horseshoe facility in Sebring, Highlands County Convention Center and Fairgrounds, Lake Placid High School, Lakeshore Mall, Sebring High School football stadium and Sun ‘N Lake Preserve.

The TDC has intentionally sought sports events, Hartt said, including a cycling event this October, an event in the style of “The Amazing Race” in December, an American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) event next April and a three-year marathon event starting in October 2021.

“We’re going after sports that fit with our destination,” Hartt said.

Has the pandemic affected that drive and how badly?

“It has,” Hartt said. “I have to say we have not been hit as hard as more metropolitan areas.”

April, which TDC board members thought would be dead, saw $29,000 in tourist tax.

She didn’t know for what events, however. The Florida Department of Revenue collects the tourist tax directly now and doesn’t give as detailed information as the TDC used to get from Highlands County Tax Collector Eric Zwayer.

“The good thing about this fiscal year is that from October to February we were at a record high of 20% above [normal],” Hartt said, before revenue started tapering off in March.

Sebring looking at annexation


SEBRING — It has been awhile since the City of Sebring grew through annexation, but that could change though details on where and when are not available now.

The City Council recently approved a budget amendment to appropriate funds for legal fees due to annexation costs.

The budget amendment increased the legal fee amount by $40,000 from $185,600 to $225,600.

Highlands News-Sun asked City Manager Scott Noethlich about the annexation and if some of the increase in legal fees is due to the legal dispute concerning city utilities between the City of Sebring and two manufactured home communities?

“A lot of our [legal] fees in the past few months has been related to that case where they are challenging the declaration of covenant,” Noethlich said.

The city enacted an ordinance in September 2019 requiring property owners to consent to annexation as a condition of providing water and sewer services to new residents and tenants.

Sebring Village, 890 Village Drive, off Schumacher Road; Woodhaven Estates, 2103 Fiesta Way, off Brunns Road, and Kevin Smith, a new Sebring Village homeowner at the time, filed a lawsuit Dec. 10 in an attempt to stop the city from terminating or refusing to supply utility services based on the September ordinance.

There has been no final resolution in the lawsuit.

Concerning any potential annexation, Noethlich said he wanted to meet with the City Council before providing information about possible annexation.

“They have inquired about it; we want to sit down and talk to them about it,” he said. There will be more information on it once there is some guidance from the Council.

It has been awhile since Sebring has done any kind of annexation, Noethlich said. It has typically been annexation at the request of the property owner.

The last annexation Noethlich remembers was off of Skipper Road or Sparta Road and somebody was trying to combine two lots into one, he said. One lot was in the county and one lot was in the city and they wanted to do some development on the lot and they were being exposed to two different sets of rules.

The property owner wanted to annex the county parcel into the city so they would only be affected by one set of rules and regulations.

State sees fewer than 1,900 new COVID cases

Florida saw a modest increase of 1,838 COVID-19 cases with the release of Monday’s numbers by the Florida Department of Health. It’s the lowest number of new cases in any day since June 15. Testing was also down for the day, but the positivity rate of 4.55% for new cases is the lowest rate seen in the past two weeks.

The median age of new cases crept back up to 40 after being below that mark for the four previous days. The overall median age of all cases is 41 and of the 648,269 cases the state has seen, 640,978 have been residents, with 7,291 non-residents testing positive.

Miami-Dade County saw 274 new cases and now has had a total of 161,637, while Broward County had an additional 133 cases to bring its total to 73,426. Palm Beach County saw an increase of 120, giving it a total of 43,187 cases. Combined, the three counties have accounted for 42.9% of the state’s 648,269 cases. They’ve also accounted for 42% of the 12,023 deaths in the state. There have been 11,871 deaths among Florida residents and 152 non-resident deaths.

Highlands County had another good day on the testing front, with 12 new cases out of more than 325 tests and a positivity rate for new cases of 3.65% for the day, the second straight day the county has been under 4%. The county has had a total of 1,921 cases and 315 of those have been related to a long-term care facility. The county’s rate of 16% of cases being long-term care facility related is more than double the state average of 7%.

The death toll remained at 69 for Highlands County and the 4% death rate is also twice the average of the state rate.

DeSoto County added one additional case to stand at 1,524. DeSoto has seen a high percentage of cases come from the correctional facility, as 16% of the county’s cases have come from the correctional facility, which is well above the state average of 3%. There have been 240 correctional facility cases in DeSoto County.

Glades County added three new cases to bring its total to 463, with 272 (59%) of those being related to a correctional facility.

Hardee County saw an increase of nine cases to raise its total to 1,175. There have been 105 (9%) correctional facility cases.

Okeechobee County had just one additional case and now has seen 1,284 cases.

Polk County had an increase of 64 new cases and has now seen 17,863 cases. The county has not had a positivity rate under 5% in the last two weeks and has seen positive cases at more than 30 schools. Nine of the county’s new cases were in the 5 to 14 year old age group.

According to Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering, there have been 6.28 million cases in the United States, resulting in 189,028 deaths.

Globally, there have been 27.1 million cases and 889,682 deaths.