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What HCFR needs: 'Planning, funding and commitment'

SEBRING — After three years helping Highlands County upgrade and consolidate fire and emergency medical services, Public Safety Director Marc Bashoor hopes the county will keep improving and funding it.

When he retires Sept. 30, Bashoor said, the county will still have a significant amount of work to do.

“The foundation is built, but foundations don’t cover organizations,” Bashoor said Friday. “Roofs cover organizations. They need support.”


Conversion of an all-volunteer fire department into a volunteer and paid fire/EMS system was based on the Fitch Study, an evaluation that came about after fire chiefs at the county’s 10 volunteer departments asked for help. In some cases, Bashoor said, departments’ first-response engines were nearly 30 to 40 years old.

“People had become accustomed to doing without,” Bashoor said. “It all costs money, and money doesn’t grow on trees.”

As seven-year head of fire services for Prince George County, Maryland — 1 million people east of Washington, D.C. — he saw a $180 million fire services budget. He spent five years as emergency services director in a West Virginia county with a $4 million total county budget — less than Highlands County’s fire assessment raises each year. Highlands County Fire Rescue needs more to keep up with needs.

“Stop worrying about how much it costs. Start worrying about what you can’t do without,” Bashoor said. “When you worry about how much it costs, eventually you will do without.”

A municipal services taxing unit (MSTU) might work better to raise funds for the fire service, he said, versus the current combination of assessment and General Fund monies.

Basic needsWhen Bashoor came aboard in 2018, the volunteer firefighter roster had 182 names, one of whom was deceased. Culling the lists pared it down to 105, of whom 60 ran less than two calls per month, 20 ran two to four calls a month, 17 ran four to 10 calls and eight ran more than 10 calls. Full-time paid firefighters have helped cover the gap, he said.

Of Highlands County’s 34 engines and tankers, including four new ones already received or ordered, 18 should be taken off the road, according to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards, and another six be relegated to secondary response, Bashoor said.

Of the remaining 10, one will be too old in 2023, he added, followed by two more in 2024, two in 2025 and one more in each 2026, 2027 and 2029. To keep up, he said the county has to order two new engines per year, every year. There’s no plan right now to do that, he said, so he’ll recommend putting $150,000 per year into an apparatus fund. It’s not enough to keep up, but it’s a start.

All of Highlands County’s departments now log calls on a single database, which helps the county track its needs. Bashoor said he now has a year’s worth of data to both plan for needs and demonstrate actual needs.

He also recommends more extensive water systems, with more hydrants, to help the planned new stations provide more protection.

Finally, Bashoor advises that the county look into automatic mutual-aid agreements with Avon Park and Sebring city departments to ensure coverage, especially on parts of U.S. 27 where city limits and county coverage converge.


SEBRING — What is in store for The School Board of Highlands County’s District Office as the board goes shopping for a new location?

A couple of possibilities are relocating to the former JCPenney location at Lakeshore Mall or going to the Kindergarten Learning, which was a grocery store/shopping center.

At Tuesday’s School Board workshop, four of the five board members believed the JCPenney building offered an ideal location with plenty of parking.

School Board Member Donna Howerton continues to oppose the mall location saying the district would have no control over who buys what on either end of the mall. She also doesn’t believe the half-cent school sales tax revenue can be used to purchase the building.

School Board Member Bill Brantley said he favors the mall location because it is centrally located on U.S. 27.

For its June 22 meeting, the board agreed to consider getting an appraisal of the JCPenney building and consider returning the kindergarten classes from the Kindergarten Learning Center back to Cracker Trail, Fred Wild and Woodlawn elementary schools starting with 2022-23 school year.

Earlier in the workshop, Superintendent Brenda Longshore offered the comparisons in space, parking and price of relocating some of the district’s departments, such as human resources, curriculum and student services.

The current district office has 39,264 square feet of space, with an additional 3,600 square feet in portables, not counting the transportation, facilities and food service departments and the print shop, which would remain at the current School Street location.

The Kindergarten Learning Center has 39,971 square feet of inside space and would require about $5 million for remodeling and $150,000 to remodel the bus loop for additional parking.

The JCPenney Building has 62,120 square feet with 392 parking spaces. The Lakeshore Mall owner has an asking price of $2,400,000 that is negotiable, according to the district.

Remodeling would cost an estimated $7.5 million.

For a newly constructed building, the costs would be – $150,000 for eight acres of property in a good location, $1 million for site preparation and $14 million to construct a building.

“We need to be thinking about what is our ultimate goal?” Longshore said. “Do we want to have space to have a boardroom that is bigger than the boardroom we currently have? When children are presenting, they fill the place, or when we are giving awards.

“Now we are terribly, terribly tight as far as having meeting rooms to be able to gather, at this point going to schools to gather because there is not enough space for committees and groups.”

Longshore said she hoped they wouldn’t try to move to a location with the same amount of space, but 60,000 square feet may not be needed, but would provide room to grow and could be filed out with meeting rooms.

She said there is great interest from the elementary school principals to get their kindergarteners back to their campus. Fred Wild Elementary would not need any portables to do that. Cracker Trail would need one more portable and Woodlawn Elementary would need one or two portables if the kindergarten classes returned.

The students at the Kindergarten Leaning Center are losing about 40 to 45 minutes a day in instruction time due to their amount of time in transportation.

Longshore said the Kindergarten Learning Center could be used for the Sebring elementary schools’ VPK/pre-kindergarten classes including migrant pre-K, pre-K ESE and the district’s growing voluntary pre-kindergarten program.

The board decided to wait until it received the JCPenney building appraisal and final asking price before deciding on whether to move pre-K and VPK classes to the Kindergarten Learning Center.

Brantley said, cost-wise, finding eight acres to build in a good location on U.S. 27 is nearly impossible.

“We are going to pump life into that mall with us being there,” he said.

School Board Chair Jan Shoop agreed with Brantley, saying she didn’t know if they could get a better location.

School Board Member Jill Compton-Twist said people agree the mall is a great location.

“I am not against the mall and not against the Kindergarten Learning Center, either,” she said.

Florida stops daily COVID-19 updates
  • Updated

The Florida Department of Health has ended its daily COVID-19 reports and is now updating numbers on a weekly basis. Friday’s FDOH report was for the week of May 28-June 3 and shows data just for Florida residents.

Highlands County saw a total of 30 new cases for the seven-day period with a positivity rate of 3.1%. The county gave 465 vaccines during the week, according to FDOH.

Hospitalizations are no longer listed on the new weekly report, but the Agency for Heath Care Administration shows 16 people in Highlands County currently hospitalized with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19, which is an increase of two from the previous day.

The state saw an increase of 11,901 new cases for the seven-day period and had a positivity rate of 3.6%, while administering 356,193 vaccine doses.

Numbers continue to shrink in the United States, with states reporting 16,008 cases on Thursday, which brings the seven-day average down to 13,965. That’s a 35% decrease from a week ago and a 49% decrease from the 27,559 average of two weeks ago. The peak was on Jan. 11, when the seven-day average was 243,427.

Deaths haven’t dropped at quite the same ratio, as there were 589 new deaths reported, which is 43 fewer than last Thursday. The seven-day average is 387, which is a 32% decrease from a week ago.

The country’s positivity rate is down to 1.79%.

Hospitalizations and ICU cases have both decreased 13% from a week ago.

Vaccinations are also dropping, as Bloomberg is showing the seven-day average is down to 918,455 per day. Numbers have not been that low since January and it will now take six months at the rate to vaccinate 75% of the U.S. population.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is showing 169,090,262 people have received at least one dose of the vaccine, which is 50.9% of the population. The are 136,644,618 people considered fully vaccinated, which is 41.2% of the U.S. population. Roughly 52% of adults in the U.S. are fully vaccinated.

States have administered 80.8% of the vaccines they have received, leaving close to 70 million unused vaccines.

Globally, 2.02 billion vaccines have been administered throughout 176 countries. The daily average is roughly 36.6 million doses per day.

The Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering is showing the U.S. has seen a total of 33.3 million cases and 596,591 deaths.

The global count is 172.2 million cases and 3.7 million deaths.