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Highlands_news-sun
No budget changes: 2020-21 to start with $159M and 8.55 millage

SEBRING — Highlands County, going into the 2020-21 fiscal year, will have a $159.2 million budget, an 8.55-mil tax rate and the potential of three months of operating reserves for the first time in several years.

Commissioner Arlene Tuck, who had pushed for lowering the tax rate, said she hoped constitutional officers would “do better next year” on the County Commission’s annual request to hold spending below a 2% cap. Still, she approved the budget with the same tax rate it has had for the last six years.

In effect, while the rate has not gone up, property values have, so each landowner will pay a little more in actual money in 2020-21 than this current year, and the county will get a little more revenue in 2020-21.

It’s a 2.8% increase from the rollback rate of 8.3169 mills, which would have brought in the same revenue as this current budget year.

The Board of County Commission also approved assessments and budgets for all assessment districts, totaling $12.77 million.

At Tuesday night’s final budget hearing, David Nitz, manager of the Office of Management and Budget, presented a budget that had come down by $2 million from $161 million a couple of months ago, thanks to cuts by both the commission and constitutional officers. Commissioners wanted to keep increases at or below 2% to build a fund balance.

Nitz said the county started October 2019 with a fund balance of $17.13 million, enough to run the county for 2.47 months at a monthly cost of $5.79 million. This past year drew it down to $11.15 million, enough for 1.92 months.

Auditors recommend government entities keep three months or more of reserve operating revenue on hand for a natural or economic disaster. After Hurricane Irma, the county used $15 million to collect and dispose of storm debris, and reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency took two years.

Nitz said that if the county can keep from spending any fund balance in this coming fiscal year, it should be able to save up 3.07 months of operating revenue.

Commissioners, directly, can only control the $73.5 million General Fund, and then only $20.8 million of that, after paying $6 million to mandatory components and programs, $876,710 to outside agencies, $1.37 million in transfers to other funds and $476,500 into the Reserve for Contingency for board departments.

The board also pays $8.04 million in other mandates, $3.2 million in law enforcement costs and $744,647 for the E911/Consolidated Dispatch.

The rest of the budget goes to constitutional officers:

- Sheriff’s Office — $30.5 million.

- Clerk of Courts Office — $4.3 million.

- Property Appraiser’s Office — $3.2 million.

- Tax Collector’s Office — $1.9 million.

- Supervisor of Elections Office — $898,922.


Highlands_news-sun
Hurricane Sally makes landfall, will other storms?

SEBRING — The eyes of the nation are on Hurricane Sally and the damage she has brought to much of the Gulf Coast. Hurricane Sally finally made landfall Wednesday morning as a Category 2 hurricane near Gulf Shores, Alabama but cast widespread flooding and damage for hundreds of miles from the 105 mph winds. Florida and the Keys saw flooding in the days leading up to landfall. Disastrous flooding was also seen in much of the Panhandle, including Pensacola.

Ironically, Hurricane Ivan made landfall in the same spot – Gulf Shores, Alabama – 16 years ago as a Category 3 storm with winds of 120 mph.

There is nothing to be done but to clean up the damage and get back to life. While many are watching the Gulf Coast, meteorologists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are watching several other storms in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Currently, they are watching Hurricane Teddy, a Category 2 storm as of Wednesday’s 11 a.m. update. Teddy had winds of 100 mph and moving NW at 12 mph toward Bermuda.

Meteorologist Tony Hurt said Teddy is forecast to be a major (Category 3) hurricane by Thursday. The good news is the five-day forecast does not show any threat to land and the storm is 1,200 miles from the lesser Antilles. Hurt said it was unlikely the storm should impact Florida. He felt Teddy would stay out to sea, at the current forecast.

The good news continues as Tropical Storm Vicky weakened and is slated to dissipate over the next few days. The last advisory for Post Tropical Cyclone Paulette was given on Wednesday and she was downgraded to a strong extratropical cyclone in the north Atlantic. Tropical Storm Karina was expected to become a “remnant low” by Wednesday night, according to NOAA.

Hurt is carefully monitoring another tropical disturbance in the Gulf of Mexico, known as Disturbance 1. NOAA has the disturbance developing at 40% over the next 48 hours and increasing to 60% in the five-day forecast. An area of low pressure off the coast of Africa is known as Disturbance 2. It is favorable to develop by 50% over the next 48 hours.

“Both are good candidates to become ‘Wilfred,’” Hurt said.

Wilfred is the last name on the list of hurricane names. Hurt said the National Hurricane Center (NHC) will be using the Greek alphabet after the name “Wilfred” is used. He said that hasn’t happened since 2005. Fraternity and sorority members should be fluent.

For more information on the tropics, visit nhc.noaa.gov.


Corona_coverage
Highlands adds 1 COVID-19 death for total of 80

SEBRING — Highlands County had one more death from COVID-19 in the Wednesday report from the Florida Department of Health for a total of 80 who have died in the county during the pandemic.

With six more coronavirus cases, Highlands has a total of 2,024 cases. Currently, 31 are hospitalized due to the virus.

Statewide, there were 2,355 additional coronavirus cases in the Wednesday report for a total of 671,201 infected.

There were 152 new virus fatalities reported in Florida for a total of 12,939 Florida residents who have died due to COVID-19

The following counties had triple-digit increases in virus cases: Alachua — 146, Broward — 155, Dade — 457, Duval — 121, Hillsborough — 138, Orange — 106, and Palm Beach — 163.

Calhoun and Holmes counties had no new cases in the Wednesday update.

Previous day testing results show statewide 4.45% tested positive while in Highlands 3.75% tested positive.

The Highlands County Board of County Commission, in partnership with the Highlands County Department of Health and AdventHealth Sebring, will have free COVID-19 drive-up testing today at the AdventHealth medical complex at 4240 Sun ‘N Lake Blvd. in Sebring and on Sept. 22 at Lakeshore Mall (near the former Sears store), 901 U.S. 27 South.

Drive-through testing will be from 5-6 p.m., and by appointment from 5-7 p.m., weather permitting, today. Drive-through testing will be from 8-9 a.m. Sept. 22 and by appointment from 8-10 a.m.

All ages are welcome. Those being tested must stay in their vehicles.

You may opt to drive-through or call and make an appointment for a specific time. Appointments can be made by calling 863-386-5690 between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Fridays.

If you are sick or feel you may have been exposed to the virus, please call your primary care physician or the local health department to be tested as soon as possible.

There was a wide range of positive rates for the other Heartland counties: DeSoto — 3.33%, Glades — 14.29%, Hardee — 30.3%, Hendry — 2.04%, and Okeechobee — 25.42%.

Dade County had a previous day positive test rate of 4.52%.

The Highlands cases have been within an age range of 0 to 99 with a median age of 47. The gender data shows 46% of the cases were in males and 54% were females.

Highlands County has had a total of 341 cases in staff and residents of long-term care facilities and a total of 61 cases in staff and inmates of correctional facilities.

Nationwide, there have been 6,600,566 COVID-19 cases with 196,103 deaths.

Worldwide, there have been 29,624,865 cases with 936,313 deaths.


Corona_coverage
CARES Act money in the works, slowly

SEBRING — On Sept 1, local business owners Mike and Vicki Jarvis learned they’d been approved for Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds.

On Wednesday, 15 days later, they told the Highlands News-Sun they hadn’t yet seen a check.

“How are we supposed to pay our bills?” Vicki Jarvis asked.

Out of 2,371 CARES Act applications “touched” by county officials, 1,591 have passed the review process, but only 147 individuals and 88 businesses have been sent checks.

The process is about 18% behind schedule, said Jerome Kaszubowski, senior director of Business Services for the Clerk of Courts Office.

County officials have approved, in total, 583 applications from individuals and 339 from businesses for help from the CARES Act, said Sydney Armstrong, Highlands County’s legislative affairs/grants coordinator.

Aside from the ones already paid, she said, very few may get paid this week or get counted in the county’s report to state officials. The reporting deadline moved up from Sept. 30 to Sept. 25 — a week from Friday.

Kaszubowski and Heather Woods, the Clerk’s compliance and internal auditor, told county commissioners this week that approximately 100 applications are pending for payment on Friday, but just 12 are ready to go.

Commissioner Don Elwell asked the source of the “log jam” in the process, and County Administrator Randy Vosburg said it’s communication with businesses, and sheer volume of applications with individuals.

Woods said the “error rate” with individual applications has been low — 7.7% — but with the volume of applications, those that passed review over the weekend, will not make Friday’s check run.

Out of the approved business applications, Armstrong said 66 had some issues, such as missing or unmatched information. She’s worked with Liz Barber, president and CEO of the Greater Sebring Chamber of Commerce, to get calls out for that missing data.

Responses have been few, Armstrong said.

Kaszubowski has eight people helping, 10% of his workforce, but with court hearings starting to back up, he said he’ll need to move people to managing caseloads.

“This is critical for a lot of folks,” Elwell said, noting that the moratorium on foreclosures ends on Sept. 30.

Elwell asked if Woods’ staff could handle the remaining reviews. She said three people handling 45 applications per day probably could.

Kaszubowski said he also has two people on the call center to answer questions and get missing information.

He told the Highlands News-Sun on Wednesday that the Clerk’s Office, through all CARES Act programs, has disbursed $473,500 so far, just 10% of the first allocation.

Elwell worried Highlands County may have even more trouble with the second round of applications, when the initial $4.6 million allocation may increase by as much as $13.8 million.

Vosburg said Highlands is doing better than some counties that have not yet or only just decided how to disburse their funds.

“Of counties in our region, we are ahead,” Vosburg said.

Elwell said the county still has a “lot of wrinkles” to “smooth out” before the next round.

“We’ve got to do what most governments don’t do very well, and that’s move quickly,” Elwell said.