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State gets drier by the day

SEBRING — Over the past few weeks, Florida has had a consistently moderate fire danger.

Florida Forest Service officials said it will get hotter and drier, and breezier as Florida moves into the winter months, increasing the risk of brush fires and bigger wildfires.

Now is a good time to check and make sure your home and property have been maintained to mitigate fire dangers, said Miguel Nevarez, wildfire mitigation specialist for the Okeechobee District of the Florida Forest Service.

“Over the past few weeks, there’s been a consistent and moderate fire danger. Sometimes it jumps up and down,” Nevarez said.

He said Monday saw some counties that were high on the Fire Danger Index Rating, a scale used to gauge the danger of fire breaking out in a given geographic area. Rain showers make it dive down, he said, but the upper-80s and low-90s temperatures in Florida, along with low humidity, will draw moisture out of the brush and forests.

“They start drying up quicker,” Nevarez said.

He said Floridians have a notion of “preparing” for fire season, but the state of Florida is unique in the world, being on a peninsula in a sub-tropical zone. The inland breezes each day from the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico help dry areas out and the constant warm temperatures, even in winter, make for a “wildfire season” that lasts year-round.

There’s also a notion that people need a lot of money to prepare their homes and property to be “firewise.” That’s also not true, Nevarez said. The main tactics people can use are cost free, except for time and effort.

“As long as people are willing to spend a little time and a little effort,” Nevarez said, “anyone can be firewise.

Clean out guttersFlorida’s pine forests produce a lot of pine needles, and they often collect in gutters and between roof gables.

“You wouldn’t think they would be a problem,” Nevarez said, “but the piles get bigger and drier, and if you have a wildfire in the immediate area, a brush fire two or three miles away, the embers can travel a few miles from the origin of where the fire started.

If they land on a roof infested with pine needles or other vegetation, people can have a fire start on their roof or in their gutters.

“If you keep it clean, it won’t matter,” Nevarez said. “It won’t catch the roof on fire.”

Maintain lawns Keep your lawn mowed on a consistent basis. Also, keep bushes trimmed on the property, especially by the house.

You also may have beautiful trees, Nevarez said, but if they overhang the roof or brush up against the home, you may want to get them trimmed. A good rule is 10 feet between your home and any trees to create a more fire-defensible home.

“Now you have a buffer and are less likely to catch your home on fire,” Nevarez said.

Declutter patiosIf you have a ton of patio furniture, try not to keep it close to the home, Nevarez said. Make sure the patio is clean of potted plants or other flammable items, he said. It becomes a safer area to enjoy and less likely to catch fire because of fewer flammable items in it.

Deal with debrisCounties and cities have yard debris pickup as part of their services or in the contract with their garbage hauler, so burning yard debris is not necessary, Nevarez said. If you have bigger piles of debris, it’s a better idea to have those picked up rather than to burn them, he said.

Know the rulesIf you must burn, the yard waste must have been generated on the same premise as where it’s being burned, and the burning must take place between 8 a.m. and one hour before sunset for that time of year.

The debris must be burned in an enclosed, noncombustible container or in a pile no greater than 8 feet in diameter. It must be set back at least 150 feet from any occupied building other than that of the landowner, 50 feet from any paved public roadway and 25 feet from any wildlands, brush or combustible structure.

You must watch the fire and have fire extinguishing equipment ready at all times.

While you don’t need a Forest Service permit to burn residential yard waste, it is recommended that you contact FFS regarding burn conditions for the day, in case it is not safe to do it that day.

Mercure wants to be the voice of change

AVON PARK — City Council candidate Michelle “Shelly” Mercure was born and raised in the City of Charm and is a proud graduate of Avon Park High School

Mercure and her husband met and married 25 years ago here in Avon Park. They have three daughters.

“Being the daughter of a local business owner, I have watched the city change time after time,” Mercure said.

Currently she is employed with a local citrus harvesting company as an office administrator.

“With a history of 15-plus years in office administration and 20-plus years in the citrus industry, I hope to offer problem solving skills, organization, direction and adaptability to the City Council for our community,” she said.

Mercure believes that there needs to be a change in direction for the city to grow, which means dedicating herself to be the voice of change in the community by listening to citizens and their suggestions within the community.

“I am looking forward to closely working with our other council members, the CRA, the Avon Park Chamber of Commerce and the members of our community to bring more activity and involvement to our City of Charm,” she said.

Her personal plan is to encourage other members of the council to see the potential visions for Main Street, by focusing on the appearance to potentially open opportunities for businesses to find the area more appealing

A “full effort clean up” should be enforced to all the buildings that are posing a dangerous hazard, not only on Main Street but throughout residential areas as well, Mercure said.

Some other points to touch on would be getting the complete budget information to research, making sure it is being utilized as beneficial for the city, as well as cutting some frivolous spending and focus on repairing streets and sidewalks, she said.

Mercure believes the city should work on attracting events and activities for the residents, as well as recognizing resident events such as high school graduations and holidays.

“I will make a great council member because, as mentioned previously, I plan to dedicate myself on being the voice of change for our community,” she said. “Since I have been able to watch so much change over time, I can see where to focus efforts.”

Watching the future generations grow up in Avon Park will play a role in how Mercure would like to see the city grow.

“We need to ensure there are good community activities and involvements to help them socialize with others,” she said. “My goals are to make our city a place where young people would like to return.

“If my vision is one that is shared by the citizens of Avon Park, then I would appreciate their vote.”

Foster concerned about Lake Tulane, roads

AVON PARK — City council candidate Thelma Foster is a life-long resident of Avon Park except for the nine years she served in the U.S. Army.

She has worked for the Department of Children and Families.

Fellow candidate Berniece Taylor encouraged her to run for city council because there will be three open seats, Foster said. “I had wanted to do it years ago when I was younger,” but there weren’t any people at that time who were interested in backing her to run.

Foster said she prayed about and decided to run.

“I love Avon Park; I always have,” she said. “It is a great city. “When I was in the military [1977-1985] that is all I talked about and they always called me ‘country’ because I spoke country.”

Foster told everyone that when she got out of the military she was going back home because of her love for the city.

“This is a great place and it can be a better place for everyone, not just a few, but it can be a better place for everyone and that is why I am running,” she said.

As a councilmember, Foster said she would address the lack of maintenance for Lake Tulane.

Donaldson Park and Lake Verona are kept up, but when she looks at her favorite lake, she remembers it as it was when she was young, but now it is overgrown.

“You used to be able to walk all the way around Lake Tulane to fish and I love to fish,” Foster said. “Now you can’t even walk around Lake Tulane and fish.”

The city does just a little bit and goes on about its business, but it’s neglected and she wants it better than that, she said.

Foster said she is also getting tired of the potholes in the streets.

If elected, she wants to try to make sure roads get resurfaced when potholes have been repeatedly filled to no success.

“Let’s make it a smooth surface and get rid of all the little potholes and resurface that part of the street,” Foster said.

Also, concerning roadway maintenance, Foster noted that some intersections can become hazardous if the painted lane stripes and arrows are faded. That can cause confusion for drivers as to which way they should be going.

“So I want to make sure that is taken care of in my first three years,” she said. “If I can’t get those little things done in my first three years, I probably won’t run again, because I haven’t done anything.”

CARES Act funds all expended; accounts closed

SEBRING — County officials reported Friday that they did not have any CARES Act funds still waiting to be expended beyond the deadline.

Local municipalities, which applied for Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds through the county, were able to get help either buying personal protection equipment for their staff or covering certain expenses.

The city of Sebring received a total of $67,476, said Finance Director Penny Robinson. Of that, $29,053 went to COVID-related wages, $14,840 went to personal protection equipment: face masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and the remaining $23,583 went to software to facilitate social distancing.

Lake Placid Finance Director Rachel Osborne said the town received $22,000 to reimburse COVID-related expenses for face masks, hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies and related items. Osborne said the town had very little billable hours related directly to dealing with the pandemic.

The city of Avon Park got $30,000 to pay down a $170,000 loan from the city’s General Fund to support the Avon Park Municipal Airport, said Finance Director Melody Sauerhafer. The city is also looking at submitting for another $13,000, she said, hoping it will be approved.

The deadline to expend CARES Act funds was Dec. 31, 2020, with audit deadlines extended into this year. County officials have said all CARES funding has been expended and already reimbursed, and the accounts have been closed.

The total federal funds received by the county under CARES was $18,534,745. It was distributed in three phases: Phase 1 – $4,633,686; Phase 2 – $3,706,949; and Phase 3 – $10,194,110. Of which, all was paid and reimbursed.

County officials report that the remaining balance in the accounts was 1 cent.

Even in Phase 3, where the county expected to receive $10.2 million, made that much of county funds available, temporarily, while waiting for reimbursement. Those reimbursements did come in, were cleared by audit and the county did not suffer any lost revenue.

In mid-January, the county filed a request with the state of Florida for an extension to the Dec. 30 deadline to give county staff and the Highlands County Clerk of Courts Business Services office until June 30 to review and clear up issues with some remaining applications.

At that time, not all totals were in.

The CARES Act saw a great many participants in the first phase. As of late August 2020, the county saw a total of 2,344 local individuals and 732 businesses applying for help. The county received more applications than that, but those were the ones that got through the process and submitted applications before the deadline.

The county also had 26 applications submitted in the first phase for community proposals, out of 204 applications started but not completed through the online submission system.

Also at that time, the county saw a total of 3,219 individual applications started in the online system and 955 business applications started, but not finished.

The original first-phase spending plan, as submitted by then-Legislative Affairs and Grants Coordinator Sydney Armstrong and by Business and Economic Development Executive Manager Meghan DiGiacomo, was to disburse $4,633,686 as follows: for-profit businesses – $1,750,000, or 37.8%; non-profit businesses – $250,000, or 5.4%; individuals – $1,250,000, or 27%; community proposals – $250,000, or 5.4%; personal protection equipment (PPE) – $120,000, or 2.6%; testing – $500,000, or 10.8%; administrative/government costs – $513,686, or 11.1%.

As needed, the numbers changed depending on applicants’ responses.