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Florida adds 2,000 new virus cases

For the second straight day, Florida saw an increase in excess of 2,000 new COVID-19 cases with the release of Sunday’s numbers by the Florida Department of Health. There were 2,016 new cases of the coronavirus, marking the fourth consecutive day Florida has added at least 1,900 cases. The overall state tally is now 75,568 cases.

It was one of the largest testing days for Florida, with the second-highest number of tests given and the positive testing rate of 5.37% was the lowest the state had seen since June 6. More than 50,000 tests were recorded for the day and Florida has given 1,409,992 tests in total.

The state has seen 2,931 deaths and 11,942 hospitalizations.

The news wasn’t all bad for Highlands County, which saw an increase of just one on a day in which more than 100 tests were tabulated. Highlands County has now seen 171 cases, which have resulted in nine deaths and 43 hospitalizations.

DeSoto County added 13 new cases to bring its total to 361, more than double the cases of Highlands County, and the county has seen 10 deaths and 45 hospitalizations.

Glades County saw four new cases with Sunday’s numbers. One of the four was correctional facility related, where 56% of the county’s cases have come from.

There were seven new cases in Hardee County to bring its total to 196 and Okeechobee County had a rough day with 17 new cases and now has seen 183 cases.

Palm Beach County had the largest jump of any county in the state with 391 new cases, followed by Dade (284) and Lee County, which saw 202 new cases.

Franklin and Gulf counties have each seen fewer than 10 cases.

There are two testing events scheduled this week. Testing is free; no insurance is required.

The first testing event will be from 5-7 p.m. Tuesday, June 16 at the Florida Department of Health, 7205 S. George Blvd. in Sebring. Call 863-386-6040 for more details

The second event will be at Samaritan’s Touch, 3015 Herring Ave. in Sebring, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, June 20. Call 800-641-0133 for more details.

According to John Hopkins, the United States has seen 2,088,986 cases, which have led to 115,645 deaths. The CDC has both numbers slightly lower.

John Hopkins has the global count at 7,845,048 cases and 431,418 deaths.

Creekmore resigns from Habitat

SEBRING — Sarah Creekmore, who has served the last five years as executive director for Highlands County Habitat for Humanity, has announced she’s moving on.

“I will miss my Habitat work deeply, but I am very excited to start this new season in life as I focus on taking care of my family,” Creekmore said via text Saturday regarding her recent resignation. “The Habitat board of directors will be making a formal announcement about that new executive director very soon.”

Creekmore noted in a letter to staff and volunteers last Thursday, that during those five years, Habitat has:

• Built 17 new energy-efficient homes, with two near completion.

• Completed 56 emergency or critical home repairs, often with new metal roofs.

• Created the “Highlands Hammers Back” initiative to help people repair and rebuild following Hurricane Irma.

• Moved the operating budget from the red to the black.

Creekmore said that her family had grown in the last five years, starting with marriage and now a young son.

Several months ago, she moved away from Florida to begin the next chapter of her life, but during that time, the local Habitat board of directors had asked her to continue to serve while they looked for a new leader.

“I was glad to help in this way because it allowed your [Habitat] affiliate to continue its forward momentum,” Creekmore said. “Then, the unexpected happened. You guessed it: COVID-19.”

That pushed her final day to June 30, and also took away any opportunity to have a proper in-person good-bye party.

However, as one final accomplishment for the five year, she listed the fact that the affiliate retained all of its employees during the recent pandemic shutdown, and wished Habitat staff and volunteers and the Highlands County community continued success.

“In the weeks and years ahead, I look forward to seeing how you continue to build strength, stability, self reliance and affordable housing solutions for individuals and families throughout Highlands County,” Creekmore said. “Today and every day I wish you health and happiness.”

Florida dairy farmers upset over USDA’s implementation of program

Florida dairy farmers were excited in April when Congress authorized a $19 billion Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) to benefit farmers and ranchers, which would be administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). They were even happier when USDA set aside $2.9 billion of those funds for direct aid to U.S. dairy producers.

But USDA’s implementation of this program has been disappointing. It has set ceilings on payments awarded to the farmers. Those ceilings have been low, even though the funds are there to make much higher payments.

The shutdown of the economy due to the COVID-19 pandemic had a devastating impact upon the dairy industry. Not only did it force some dairy farmers to dump surplus milk, give milk away, and cut back on milk production; it also led to extreme volatility in the prices farmers are paid for their milk.

Florida’s losses have been more severe than those in many other states in part because many of Florida’s approximately 75 dairies are larger than the U.S average.

Florida is also a fluid milk state. Most of the milk produced goes into drinkable milk in various container sizes. Florida does very little manufacturing of other dairy products like cheese, butter, yogurt or ice cream.

“The income loss to Florida dairy farmers could exceed $70 million by the end of this summer,” according to Ray Hodge, director of Government Relations for Southeast Milk, Inc., a dairy cooperative with 130 members, 40 percent of whom are in Florida. “Add to that the dairy farmers who do not belong to SMI, and the income loss could be $100 million.”

The CFAP, which is funded through the Coronavirus Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the Commodity Credit Corporation Charter (CCC) Act is intended to make up for some of the loss that farmers have experienced.

CARES Act funds are to be used to compensate dairy farmers for losses due to price declines that occurred in the first quarter of 2020. Farmers will receive a payment equal to $4.71 per cwt (1 cwt = 11.67 gallons) or $0.40/gallon for all milk produced in the first quarter.

CCC Act funds are to be used to compensate farmers for second quarter price declines, out-of-balance markets, and supply chain and demand disruptions. Farmers will receive a smaller payment of $1.47 per cwt or $0.13/gallon for estimated second quarter milk production.

CARES Act funds also can be used to compensate dairy farmers for livestock sold to the beef industry during the first and second quarters.

USDA’s initial guidelines called for payments of no more than $125,000 per farm. That extremely low amount shocked and dismayed many Florida farmers.

But apparently, there were some at USDA who believed that a cap was necessary to make sure that there would be enough funds so that all farmers could receive support.

Hodge strongly disagrees with their conclusion. “There is plenty of funding in the CFAP pot to remove the limits and still cover the losses experienced by both large and small farms,” he said.

Other dairy industry officials agree. Geoff VandenHeuvel, director of Regulatory and Economic Affairs, at the Milk Producers Council, said that “if the USDA’s initial guidelines are used, the department won’t come close to spending the $2.9 billion set aside for dairy losses.”

Soon a lobbying campaign was underway to get those limits either increased or removed entirely. “No one lobbied harder than Florida dairy farmers and the SMI dairy cooperative,” Hodge said.

On May 21, USDA issued final rules and regulations. Hodge acknowledged that there were improvements.

First, USDA raised the payment limit from $125,000 to $250,000.

Second, USDA attempted to cover more of the losses of large dairy farmers. It increased payment limits up to $750,000 for those dairy farms set up as corporations, limited liability corporations, or limited partnerships that have owners/shareholders who are documented active managers or workers at the dairies.

The amount which a farm is entitled to receive depends on the number of shareholders, the percent of ownership, and the amount of the losses as documented in the CFAP application. With one shareholder, the payment limitation is $250,000; with two shareholders, it’s $500,000, and with 3 shareholders, it’s $750,000.

The complicated formula by which the payment limit is calculated does not allow for many of the dairies to get all the benefits they could if USDA would simply eliminate the formula, increase the payment limit to $750,000, and pay the farmer directly for his losses up to that amount.

Hodge believes there will still be a considerable amount of funds left over after all farmers have been paid. “USDA hasn’t yet indicated what it will do with the funds, if that’s the case,” he said.

How much will the CFAP help dairy farmers? According to Joe Wright, SMI president and owner of V&W Farms in Hardee County, “the USDA payments on paper look to approach 50% of the losses encountered.”

“The assistance will help get us through the bottom of the price cycle which is May and June. Since we are paid one month in arrears, it will help greatly with June and July cash flow.”

SMI is hopeful that Congress will appropriate another round of funds for dairy farms in late summer.

USDA’s Farm Service Agency began accepting applications for CFAP funds on May 26 and will continue accepting them until Aug. 28. FSA reviews and approves the applications as it receives them.

To be eligible for the program, a farmer’s average adjusted gross income must be less than $900,000 for tax years 2016-2018, unless 75% of the adjusted gross income comes from farming, in which case the AGI limit does not apply.

To find out more about the CFAP program or to contact your local FSA office, visit farmers.gov/cfap.

Commissioners may set final priorities

SEBRING — County commissioners will take one final look at their priorities for the coming budget year, according to the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting.

The meeting agenda, dominated by hearings on rezoning property, closing a road and accepting a certificate of public convenience and necessity for an ambulance company, county commissioners will discuss their priorities with County Administrator Randy Vosburg.

Vosburg also has, under his part of the agenda, a report on response efforts for COVID-19 and preparedness efforts for this year’s hurricane season, which officially began two weeks ago.

Priorities for the board, as listed in agenda materials, are to:

- Establish a countywide road repaving and maintenance program, which the list states has been completed.

- Develop a standard fire house design for the entire county and continue to improve the fire and emergency medical services department.

- Establish the best route through the county for the proposed Southwest Florida Connector toll road between Collier and Polk Counties.

- Develop a plan of action for utility extensions.

- Build reserves for up to 3.5 months of operations and plan for a millage reduction, which may be hampered by expected reductions in revenue thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

- Make hurricane shelter upgrades, to include establishing a pet-friendly shelter.

- Design and prepare a succession plan for county administration.

- Streamline county bureaucracy to protect and grow the local economy by expanding existing businesses and keeping an eye on new opportunities.

- Improve the recycling program, which is on hold at the moment as the hauler has the processing facility closed and has asked for, but been denied, a rate increase to cover costs for the program.

County Attorney Joy Carmichael will also give the status of current legal issues for the county.

Commissioners will also consider a resolution to recognize national Child Care Appreciation Day, which took place on May 8, according to the agenda.

The one action item on the agenda is for the direct sale of seven county-owned surplus properties, expected to bring in $11,280, total.

Public hearings, as proposed, are as listed below.

- Adoption of the 2020 Highlands County Multi-Hazard Local Mitigation Strategy Plan. which will seek to mitigate disasters and hazards with projects provided by various funding sources.

- Adoption of large-scale comprehensive plan future land use amendment for approximately 323 acres south of Lake Little Redwater, east of Lake Sebring and north of Sebring Parkway — with Panther Parkway separating both parcels — that will be known as Gapway Groves. Conditions placed on the property when a previous owner intended to develop the land as a unified community, pre-recession, are no longer applicable, according to the agenda, and do not align with the goals of the current property owner or contract purchaser. Removing the conditions would allow for the maximum density under medium-density residential, which is at or less than eight dwelling units per acre.

- Adoption of a zoning change for 158.51 acres of the above-mentioned Gapway Groves from agricultural district to mobile home parks district. This parcel is south of Lake Little Redwater, west of State Road 17, ,east of Panther Parkway and predominantly on the north side of Beacon Avenue.

- Adoption of a small-scale comprehensive plan future land use amendment on 0.55 acres set north of Schumacher Road and west of Hill-Gustat Middle School from mixed use to commercial.

- Adoption of an associated rezoning on the above-mentioned 0.55 acres, from multiple-family dwelling — including motel/hotel with a flexible-unit development — to business district.

- Adoption of a small-scale comprehensive plan future land use amendment for approximately 4.14 acres, which are east of U.S. 27 and south of U.S. 98 at the southwest intersection of Toby Street and Twitty Road, from low-density residential to commercial.

- Adoption of a a small-scale comprehensive plan future land use amendment for an approximate 0.40- acre portion of a 4.19-acre parcel — located east of Lake Letta, north of Bonnet Lake, and on the southeast corner of East Altvater Road and State Road 17 South — from medium-density residential to commercial.

- Adoption of a change in the zoning atlas on 0.8 acres of the above-mentioned 4.19-acre parcel from business with a conditional-use district and mobile home/residential subdivisions district to business district.

- Consider release of a perpetual restrictive easement and declaration of covenants and restrictions on the above-mentioned 4.19-acre parcel.

- Adoption of a change in the zoning atlas for 0.83 acres on the shore of Red Beach Lake on the north side of U.S. 98, east of both U.S. 27 and County Road 17 South, from residential district to two-family dwelling district.

- Approval of a resolution to close a portion of Barkley Street between U.S. 27 and Twitty Road. Agenda materials state that the right of way is only 40-feet wide, the county requires 60 feet to build a two-lane road, and existing warehouses would be too close to the road, if it were constructed.

- Approval of a certificate of public convenience and necessity for MCT Express Inc., doing business as United Medical Transportation, to operate a class 2 basic life support ambulance and class 3 advanced life support ambulance.