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Oak Manor paved; decade-long request fulfilled

SEBRING — “My wife texted me at 11:08 this morning,” Santos De La Rosa of Oak Manor Avenue told the Highlands News-Sun via email Thursday. “She says, ‘They started paving. It’s looking good.’”

Later that night, he said in an interview that the dozen years or more he and members of his neighborhood have worked to get the road paved were worth it, just to no longer have their cars get dusty and muddy.

The small collection of residents had successfully lobbied during that time, and especially over the last eight years, to get their road paved, and to pay for the road with a 10-year assessment on all their properties, after the work gets done.

De La Rosa said Highlands County Road and Bridge crews had been preparing the road for paving since Sept. 21.

“I don’t know about paving, but just by looking at it, they are about ready to do so,” De La Rosa wrote in another email on Wednesday. “I asked one of the crew members when they expected to pave it. He wasn’t sure but said probably in a couple of weeks.”

“That was early last week,” De La Rosa wrote. “They are making good progress/time on it. It wouldn’t surprise me if they did it this week.”

Two years ago, Oak Manor Avenue residents met with County Administrator Randy Vosburg, then Road and Bridge Director Kyle Green and County Commissioner Don Elwell to get asphalt on the road.

Danyle Berish said at that meeting that her driveway would always flood during rain, even with an asphalt speed bump the county had previously installed to divert water.

She and her husband, Daniel, are waiting for the next rain to see if they can dispose of the sandbags in front of their garage.

The road is smooth, she said.

“It was nice coming home from the groceries with a paved road,” Berish said.

She complements the Road and Bridge crews for hearing them complain over the years when every effort to solve the drainage issues didn’t work.

Hopefully, she said, with the improvements to the road and swales, rain will stop running into their drive, she said.

“It will be nice that we can finally have clean cars again,” Berish said.

Over the phone Thursday, De La Rosa said he was very thankful to all three county officials, as well as former County Commissioner Jack Richie and current Commissioners Greg Harris and Arlene Tuck for their help.

Road and Bridge Director Jonathan Harrison, who succeeded Green last month, said when he was road construction inspector, he had followed the project and upheld the goal of getting it done.

He said he assured administration and commissioners that Road and Bridge could get it done in a timely manner.

“And we did just that,” Harrison said, noting that work started Sept. 22 and finished on Thursday.

“I am very appreciative to our Road & Bridge staff who are involved and thank them for their work,” Harrison said. “They continue to provide excellent service to the public, and have assisted me immensely during my transition into the Director role.”

County commissioners had struggled with the prospect of approving a paving project prior to collecting full payment, but were bound by a vote they had made in a previous year to set up an assessment district for the road and collect the residents’ half of the cost after doing the work.

Throughout almost every stage of the process, Commissioners Jim Brooks and Ron Handley voted against the proposal on the principle that allowing it for one neighborhood would set a precedent to allow it for other neighborhoods.

On the rare occasions that the board has allowed residents to pay after the work, it would require them to raise the money in three years.

In the case of Oak Manor Avenue, they allowed residents to pay lower assessments for 10 years, with the caveat that this would be the only instance where they would allow it.

After the second Meeting of the Districts in June, residents saw what seemed to be the final process in the creation of the MSBU, where the Board of County Commission — as the board over all county-run assessment districts — approved the final assessment for residents on the road by a 4-1 vote.

The Oak Manor project has paved almost 1,000 feet of roadway, at a cost of $90,000 total.

Landowners on the road will be assessed for their $45,000 half over a course of 10 years. County commissioners said this is the only exception they will allow to the rule of collecting funds before starting the work.

In the future, any MSBU will have to raise the residents’ portion of the construction costs before any work starts.

Elwell said he was glad to see the project complete before the end of his tenure after pursuing it for eight years, especially since it was a struggle.

“Folks need to understand that you can get an awful lot more done through compromise, tolerance and mutual respect than you can through combativeness and inflexibility,” Elwell said. “If I can help make that a reality for people, I’d be happy to do that.”

He said Green had told him a lot of people have asked about getting their roads paved through an assessment. Whether or not any other neighborhood might get that, for now, one community has.

“I’m hoping to be able to drive on that road, over this weekend,” Elwell said, “with a big ol’ grin on my face.”

Kevin Roberts running for District 1 Commission

SEBRING — Kevin Roberts is the Republican candidate for Highlands County Commission, District 1.

Roberts is the Founder and Chairman of the Board for the Champion for Children Foundation of Highlands County.

His professional experience also includes serving 16 years as the Director of Human Services for the Board of County Commissioners in Highlands County from 1994-2007.

Highlands News-Sun asked the following questions to all the County Commission candidates.

What do you think is the best way to balance the county budget, (given the options of raising taxes, enacting assessments, cutting departments and/or cutting services)?

Roberts responded: As the Human Services Director for the Highlands County Commission for 16 years, from 1991–2007, I recognized early on that the County Commission was, generally speaking, opposed to raising property taxes and fees. As a county Director, I was expected to live within the adopted human services budget. There were, at times, exceptions based on unexpected emergencies or mandates.

I might add, living within my means also applies to my personal life. I never spent more than I earned! This was the lifestyle that I embraced!

If elected County Commissioner on November 3rd, the County Administrator, county directors and department heads would be expected to present a fiscally conservative budget that does not recommend raising property taxes. As a fiscal conservative, I have no desire to raise property taxes or enact additional assessments, unless we are confronted with an unexpected emergency, such as an unforeseen natural disaster.

It is important for the County Commission to also work closely with the Constitutional Officers and seek creative ways to balance the budget and avoid raising taxes. I personally know all the Constitutional Officers, and I do not believe that any of them want to see the County Commission raise taxes. They too have learned to live within their means.

Cutting departments and / or cutting services would only occur as a last resort upon the recommendation of the County Administrator and staff. I would be careful not to cut critical or essential services. When going through the 2021-22 fiscal year budget process, I will learn, if elected, more about the inner working of each department; thus I will be better informed as to what areas of the budget to cut.

I might add that while working 16 years for the county, I always found ways to develop strong public / private partnerships, which in turn saved the county thousands of dollars. County Commissioners should seek, when possible, strong public / private partnerships with the goal to save or leverage tax payer dollars.

How would you prefer to improve the business climate for local employers that would encourage and enable them to hire more local workers?

Roberts responded: I would want to study various ways to improve the business climate, including interacting and relating to local employers and learning from them what county policies, ordinances or regulations inhibit the growth of their businesses. Small, medium and large businesses are the engines that drives our local economy; therefore, it is essential that we listen to business owners, and strive to remain a business friendly community.

Generally speaking, I am in favor of tax abatements when the objective is to entice large businesses to move their companies / operations to our community. This would stimulate the economy and hopefully create good paying jobs. I believe the Highlands County Commission should support economic growth by providing partial tax abatements.

From my research, I don’t believe tax abatements are frequently utilized in Highlands County to entice large companies to relocate to our community. A better approach might be to help current businesses already located in Highlands County. We could assist them in expanding their current operations by offering a partial tax abatement! The feasibility of this approach needs to be researched by county staff, with recommendations made back to the Commission.

What methods do you think are best to encourage new employers and their employees to relocate to Highlands County (given the options of more workforce housing, lower housing density, tax incentives to employers, new infrastructure for facilities and workforce training)?

Roberts responded: For starters, Highlands County is a great place to live, raise a family and retire! We need to aggressively market the beauty of Highlands County to prospective employers.

South Florida State College has strong vocational and technical programs, preparing a workforce that will meet the needs of new businesses moving to our area. Bachelor degrees are now offered to all eligible students, unlike just a few years ago.

Because of our capable and dedicated law enforcement agencies, Highlands County is a safe and secure place to live! We have parks and recreation, including many lakes and golf courses. We are centrally located, and just a short drive to international airports and large urban areas. We have both public and private schools that educate our children and youth. We have many non-profits organizations and churches that can enhance the quality of life for those residing in our county. Highly skilled inpatient and out-patient medical services are available and easily accessible.

As mentioned previously, I am also in favor of partial tax abatements to attract new businesses to our area, and to help expand existing businesses. We need to focus on having a business friendly community.

Several areas of concern include the lack of good paying jobs, affordable housing, including rental units, and a workforce prepared for large companies locating to our county.

To promote economic development, the County Commission should work closely with Meghan DiGiacomo, Executive Manager of the Business & Economic Development Department for Highlands County. Periodic presentations should be made to the Commission by Meghan DiGiacomo, showcasing her efforts to create a business friendly community and attract new businesses to our county.

It was a wise decision several years ago for the County Commission to make the Economic Development Commission / Industrial Development Authority an “in-house” county department, as opposed to separate free standing entities. I believe this decision gave the Highlands County Commission greater input and influence over economic development.

What do you think are the best ways to ensure that commissioners always hear, recognize and represent all of their constituents (given the wide differences exhibited in the past 2-4 years in commissioners’ use of town hall meetings, social media and personal communication that have resulted in varying degrees of connection and disconnection to constituents)?

Roberts responded: I think connectivity with our constituents is vitally important. Because we are elected to serve all residents, perhaps we need to “brainstorm” various ways to improve the public’s perception and accessibility to the commission.

I know it has been tried before, but perhaps the Commission could revisit the idea of scheduling one evening meeting each month, instead of two morning meetings. Constituents with full-time day jobs would have greater opportunities to brings their issues, concerns and suggestions to the commission.

Workshops could be more frequently scheduled, at various times, allowing more opportunity for constituents to participate. I also like the idea of properly noticed, quarterly “town hall” meetings involving all commissioners. An open Q&A period might be helpful, or the commissioners could simply listen to the concerns or comments of our constituents.

Since I have never served on the Commission, these suggestions may not be feasible; however, they may be worth exploring.

What leadership role should the county commission take in a worldwide, statewide and local disaster, such as COVID-19, the effects of which can be mitigated by local behavioral and procedural changes for both individuals and businesses?

Roberts responded: How we effectively handle any given disaster depends on the type of disaster we are confronted with.

For instance, local control is often the best control when it comes to handling disasters, such as hurricanes or other natural disasters. We know our community best, not the politicians in Washington or Tallahassee. We are also in the best position to articulate our county-wide concerns to state and federal officials.

Our Emergency Operation Center (EOC) is fully trained, competent, and ready to be activated as the need arises. In case of an emergency, our local law enforcement officials have a rich history of working closely with the Commission, County Administration and the EOC staff. We would of course seek reimbursement from FEMA for disaster related damages.

The County Commission should probably look to the Governor’s office when experiencing a state-wide or world-wide pandemic. There would be more consistency with emergency responses if all Florida counties sought direction and directives from our Florida Governor. The Governor would remain in close contact with Washington, DC and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) for important health updates, and he/she would in turn disseminate the critical information with recommendations to local officials. Some responses would be mandated by the governor’s office, while others would be left to the discretion of local commissions and city councils.

State sees 4,044 virus case increase

Health experts have been warning against “COVID fatigue” for several months now. But many people don’t appear to have gotten the message, as Florida is on an uptick, with the 4,044 new cases on the Saturday morning report from the Florida Department of Health the highest seen since Aug. 21.

There were more than 7,643 new cases listed on Aug. 31, but 3,870 of those were a one-time “data dump,” so the actual number of new cases for the day was 3,773.

The more socially active 15 to 24 age group saw the highest number of new cases, with 891 new cases, while the 25 to 34 age group had the second highest increase with 704 new cases. There were 567 cases in those 65 and over.

The positivity rate for new cases was 5.21%, which is just slightly higher than the 5% recommended by the World Health Organization for reopening, but it was the third time in four days the positivity rate has been above the 5% barrier.

There have been 752,481 cases overall and a cumulative positivity rate of 13.18%

Of those cases, 63,212 have been in those under the age of 18. The overall positivity rate in juveniles is 12.6%.

There were 87 new resident deaths, bringing the total to 15,917 resident deaths. One additional non-resident death brought that total to 201.

There were 15 new cases in Highlands County, which brings the total to 2,431. There was one new death to bring the total to 102.

Five of the new cases in the county were in the 75 to 84 group, with three new cases in the 45 to 54 age bracket. The median age for new cases was 67.

The positivity rate for new cases was 6.20%. After briefly getting the rolling average below 5%, the county is moving the wrong direction, as 10 of the last 14 days have yielded positivity rates above 5% and four days have seen double-digit positive rates in new cases.

DeSoto County had seven new cases, which equals the five previous days combined, and there have now been 1,620 cases and 28 deaths in the county.

Glades County saw no new cases on 17 tests to remain at 587 cases. More than half of those (301) are related to a correctional facility.

Hardee County had a six-case increase to climb to 1,524 cases. The county has seen some ugly positivity rates, with nine of the last 14 days in double-digits.

Okeechobee County had an increase of three cases out of 166 tests and has seen 1,663 cases.

As usual, Miami-Dade County had the largest increase in the state, with 544 cases, followed by Broward County at 389 and Hillsborough County, with 269 new cases. Orange County added 257 cases, Pinellas saw 241 new cases and Palm Beach County had an increase of 205.

Duval County added 143 cases, with Polk County right behind with 142 new cases and Lee County saw an increase of 129 cases. Manatee County had an increase of 120 cases and Alachua added 100 new cases.

Nationally, there were more than 70,000 new cases, according to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering. The United States passed the 8 million mark overnight and has now seen 8,069,856 cases and there have been 218,766 deaths.

Globally, the case mark is approaching 40 million, as there have been 39.46 million cases and 1.1 million deaths. The United States has seen more cases than any county, with India having the second-most, approximately 750,000 behind the U.S. Brazil has seen the second-highest number of deaths, with more than 150,000.

Garcia: Streamline, educate, promote, build, plan, communicate

SEBRING — Carmelo Garcia, Democrat of Sebring, wants to be the next county commissioner for District 1, the seat being vacated by Jim Brooks this year.

He is running against Kevin Roberts, Republican. Both answered questions posed by the Highlands News-Sun to address issues that have been in the forefront of local governance, to include budget priorities, improving the local climate for business as well as workers, dealing with an emergency like COVID-19 and ensuring that all residents’ needs and concerns are heard by the board.

What follows are Garcia’s answers to those questions, which he emailed to the Highlands News-Sun.

Streamline and hold taxes

When asked about the best way to balance the budget, given the options of raising taxes, installing assessments and cutting departments and/or services, Garcia said he would “streamline the redundancy in every department focusing on production-based performance.”

He also said he would not raise taxes, and performance-based departments would not see cuts nor interruptions in service.

“I would look for ‘red flags’ on spending on wants over needs,” Garcia explained.

Education and tourism

When asked how he would prefer to improve the business climate for local employers to enable them to hire more local workers, Garcia hit on education and tourism.

He would like to work with local business owners on building and enhancing an employee education program on different types of employment opportunities here, noting that the county’s high school students leave to find employment in other counties because of this.

He suggested that tourism would help improve the hiring climate, also.

“Working on tourism in this county would be a major step to helping the local business owners to be in a good position to hire more local residents,” Garcia said.

Homes and infrastructure

When asked about the methods he would think best to encourage new employers and employees to relocate to Highlands County, Garcia focused first on housing.

“I would work with builders to build new homes that these new residents can enjoy,” Garcia said.

Tax incentives, he said, would be one way to do this.

Infrastructure is his second point. As long as it is within budget, the county needs to make sure that the water/sewer lines and facilities, paved roads and other utilities are in place to encourage new development for business and housing.

Plan and act

When asked what leadership role the county commission should take in a local, statewide or worldwide disaster, especially with regard to encouraging behavioral changes by individuals and businesses, Garcia said providing information and training to the community is a key role for local government.

He said leaders in any position of public trust — political, law enforcement, emergency response and even clergy — need training and education on how to proceed in emergencies, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As county leaders, it is our duty to ensure residents, business owners and all religious organizations are informed and trained to react in case of such tragedies or outbreaks like the current one we are all dealing with,” Garcia said. “If we don’t plan, then we are planning to fail.”

Be accessible

When asked his thoughts on the best ways to ensure that commissioners always hear, recognize and represent all of their constituents, Garcia pointed to accessibility.

The most recently-elected commissioners have used town hall meetings, social media, and personal communication with varying degrees of connection or disconnection to constituents.

Garcia suggested his methods of communication could or would involve all of those to build stronger connections.

“As the next commissioner, ALL the residents, regardless of where they reside, will be my FIRST priority,” Garcia answered. “Whether it is town halls, Facebook, commissioners’ meetings, in person or any social media platform I WILL BE ACCESSIBLE when they need me to be there for them to address their concerns.”