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County calls out hauler as 'habitual violator'

SEBRING — County Administrator Randy Vosburg has called out Waste Connections LLC as a ‘habitual violator’ of its contract with the county.

The garbage and recycling hauler’s legal counsel has asked for a hearing to appeal that declaration, and the Board of County Commission has obliged. Commissioners will hear arguments during the next regular meeting on June 1.

In a letter to the company on May 7, Vosburg said he’d reviewed documents from the Engineering Department about the company’s activities, and found that the company had defaulted often and regularly on conditions of its franchise agreement with the county. Under Section 13.4 of the agreement, he said, those actions constituted a “condition of irredeemable default.”

In all caps, he then wrote, “Please govern yourself accordingly.”

In a page-and-a-half response letter, Waste Connections’ attorney Grant J. Smith strongly disagreed with the declaration, stating that the county had no history of default on which to base the decision, and if there had, that the county should have served the company with notices of default, as required under Sections 12 and 13.2(g) of the contract.

He said company officials deserve to know what specific grievances the county has, and is prepared to discuss these issues, but has no paper-trail of violations to follow.

“To provide substantive arguments with this appeal, without an accounting of the issues, would be boxing at shadows,” Smith wrote.

He said the company has wanted since January to enforce mediation rights granted it under the contract to resolve some outstanding contract issues. The county, he alleges, has not allowed it, which he said violates the contract. Smith further said the company officials were proud to have served the county for 11 years

“Even in the most trying conditions of a pandemic and well-documented national labor shortages, the women and men of the company work hard every day for the residents of Highlands County,” Smith writes. “Because of the potential profound ramifications of this process to the community and the company, the opportunity to have our appeal heard by the [commission] would be greatly appreciated.”

The next regular meeting will be at 9 a.m. June 1 in the Highlands County Government Center at 600 S. Commerce Ave. in Sebring. At Tuesday’s commission meeting, Commissioner Kevin Roberts asked if Vosburg could keep the agenda light on June 1, to make room for what might be a lengthy discussion. Vosburg said he’d try, but a few other time-sensitive items would have to be heard that day.

“Pack a lunch,” County Attorney Sherry Sutphen said.

Family waits for day in court 7 years later

SEBRING — The wheels of justice are turning too slowly for Carolina Hall, whose granddaughter — Mercedes Blair — was allegedly beaten to death by an adult.

“The case has dragged on way too long, too many excuses,” said Hall, who raised the youngster since the child was 8 months old. “I think we’re the longest-lasting murder case in Highlands County.”

It’s been nearly seven years since Mercedes, 4, died from a disfiguring skull fracture and internal injuries. In the hours before the child died, a doctor at Highlands Regional Medical Center noted bruising on nearly every part of the youngster’s body, as well as blunt force trauma to her liver and kidneys.

On Oct. 14, 2014, Highlands County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrested James Ivan Sanders, a 28-year-old lawn care employee. According to the arrest affidavit, the child’s mother, Geisy Alvarez, had left Mercedes in Sanders’ care while she went to work. Sanders — who had taken Alvarez and the child into his home two weeks earlier —told hospital staff the child had tripped and hit her head on the floor. He also said he had found the child passed out on the ground outside the mobile home.

When police didn’t buy Sanders’ explanation for the child’s injuries, they charged him with aggravated child abuse and first degree murder.

Hall — and her husband Tim Hall — long for justice for the little girl who called them “Nana” and “Papa.” Mercedes’ father, Bryce Blair, who is Carolina’s son, has taken his call for justice to Change.org, the online site where people can gather signatures for a cause.

“The State Attorney’s Office has been dragging its feet,” Hall says. “The fact that Sanders’ lawyer gets continuance after continuance … Bryce boils about this case, trust me.”

The Halls may have a point. Though the average Florida felony case lasts about 180 days, Florida v. Sanders — with more than 62 court events and 375 motions, memorandum and other filings since Sanders’ arraignment — has lasted much longer.

“This should have been resolved a long time ago,” Carolina Hall said.

Though a pre-trial conference is set for today, it will probably lead to another continuance, said Steve Houchin, Highlands County assistant state attorney. In fact, he agrees that several cases in his office are taking longer than he’d like. But judges, hoping to avoid being overturned on appeal, allow defendants a lot of continuances. Prosecutors “very seldom” ask for a continuance, Houchin said, “because our cases are usually strongest early on.”

“When a person is arrested, there’s a speedy trial period of approximately six months on a felony, three months on a misdemeanor,” Houchin told the Highlands News-Sun. “But the defendant can waive that speedy trial right by asking for a continuance. Defense attorneys typically do ask for a continuance; they want to do their own investigations, they want to take the deposition of the state witnesses, they want to file motions to suppress, all those kinds of things.”

Defendants also often ask judges to let them change lawyers, “then the new attorney starts the process all over again,” he said.

Then there’s the COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted 10th Judicial Circuit court appearances, but online streaming, video conferencing from the Highlands County Jail, and other WiFi tools already in place have helped move cases forward.

Hall has launched a “Justice for Mercedes” Facebook page with photos of the child posing with a toy karaoke microphone, celebrating at Chuck E. Cheese with family, and playing with friends in the backyard. It’s all designed to keep the child’s memory alive and to remind the community that a small life ended because adults failed to protect her.

“Mercedes, she loved music,” Hall said. “She loved karaoke, loved singing, dancing, and loved all kinds of animals.”

Hall often took Mercedes to yard sales and thrift shops, it was something the two loved doing together. “When I said shopping, she knew I didn’t mean the mall,” Hall remembered, laughing. “She’d say, ‘You ready to go, Nana? Let’s go shopping.’ She loved doing what Nana liked to do.”

Hall said Alvarez bears responsibility for leaving the child alone with Sanders. She believes Alvarez has not been charged because the state needs her testimony to convict Sanders.

“She’s not happy about the progress of this case, I’ll tell you that,” Houchin said of Hall. “She believes that the mother should have been charged with something. [Alvarez] was at work, and hindsight is 20-20 as to whether she should have left her child alone with him or not.”

Prosecutors meet with victim families at the start of each homicide case.

“We sit them down and explain to them up front, we’re never going to make up for your loss, but we hope to give you some closure, some justice,” Houchin said. “This is going to take a long time and we’ll get through this together.”

Hall, however, feels abandoned by prosecutors. “The state attorney’s office didn’t involve us since day one,” she said. She has spoken with Houchin a few times, but knows Alvarez — a key witness against Sanders — is in closer contact with the office.

Alvarez is remorseful, “more than you can imagine,” Houchin said. “I meet with her on a regular basis; she was in here a week or so ago and she was crying.”

Hall and other family members must brace themselves emotionally as the case grinds on.

“When we go to court, we have to relive this again, there’s no moving on,” Hall said. “This is probably the longest seven years of our lives.”

Sanders’ attorney, Gilberto Colon Jr., did not return phone calls requesting comment.

Part of Parkway ready for traffic Friday

SEBRING — If you’ve avoided Sebring Parkway between DeSoto Road and Youth Care Lane, that section will reopen for both directions this Friday.

Highlands County officials reported Tuesday that work is on track for reopening this week. It will stay a two-lane road, however, while work crews continue to work on the outside lanes of what will be a four-lane divided roadway.

Traffic heading south will use the existing southbound lane from the original roadway. Northbound motorists will use the inside lane of the new lanes, staying out of the outside lane until reaching the right-hand turn lane at Youth Care Lane.

The outside northbound lane will stay closed while work crews build the sidewalk and embankment. Access to businesses at and near Youth Care Lane will remain open from both directions.

As part of the project, the county has removed the span wires at DeSoto Road and replaced them with steel mast arms, as required by the Florida Department of Transportation with any major intersection expansions or improvements.

Highlands County has a contract with Bergeron Land Development Inc. of Fort Lauderdale to finish Phase 2, the last section of the Sebring Parkway system. The contract runs into 2023, but Highlands County Engineer Clinton Howerton Jr. has said he doesn’t think it will take that long.

Highlands County’s Public Information Office reported work started Oct. 5, 2020, and Tuesday was contract day 226, with 499 left in the 725-day contract. The current estimated completion date is Sept. 30, 2022, and county officials said the project is on target to finish on time.

Phase 2A, the part of Sebring Parkway that begins at Youth Care Lane and extends to DeSoto Road, is estimated to be done by April 2022. Phase 2B begins at DeSoto Road and extends to U.S. 27

The whole project will widen the road to four lanes from Youth Care Lane to U.S. 27, improving intersections at DeSoto Road and U.S. 27, installing drainage improvements and relocating utilities and power lines. Phase 2 will also get its own roundabout, the third one in the Parkway system and the ninth in the county, at the northwest corner of the Highlands Regional Medical Center campus.

The roundabout will have to handle an average of 7,000 daily trips on the Parkway from U.S. 27 to DeSoto Road, and a 20-year projected traffic volume of 20,000 average daily trips, according to J.D. Langford, assistant county engineer and project manager for Sebring Parkway Phases 2A/2B. It must remain a free-flowing intersection to work properly.

Langford has said the Engineering Department’s signal consultant for the U.S. 27/Parkway intersection is working with FDOT to time signal green time for Parkway traffic in order to prevent backing up traffic from the highway to the roundabout. He also said doubling the number of travel lanes should add enough capacity to keep traffic flowing.

Once it’s completed, drivers approaching the roundabout will need to stop on the edge of it, yield to traffic already there, then enter to their right when it’s clear to go, using the outside lane to exit the roundabout and the inside lane to circle it.

County officials warn motorists in that area each day to remember that construction trucks will enter and leave the Parkway, and motorists will need to pay close attention to all flagmen instructions, traffic control devices and detours, which may change from day to day.

Highlands County COVID report good
  • Updated

Highlands County coronavirus numbers remained steady on Tuesday. The Florida Health Department’s report showed low numbers across the board when its daily COVID-19 report was released.

For the second day in a row, there were only 10 new cases of infection. All of those cases were from residents. Those cases brought the county’s total to 8,685. The cases are divided by 8,588 residents and 97 non-residents.

There were no new deaths and they remain at 361.

The county processed 180 tests with 170 negative results. The positivity rate was 5.56%, down quite a bit from Monday’s rate of 8.77%.

Hospitalizations were 670 on Tuesday afternoon, up two admissions from Monday. The Agency for Health Care Administration showed 18 people were hospitalized with COVID. Florida had 2,345 people hospitalized, which is down by nearly 100 since the previous day.

Florida has had an increase of 2,805 coronavirus cases overnight; that is up by 829 infections from Monday. The cumulative infection total is 2,296,785. Of those cases, 2,253,896 are from residents and 42,889 were from non-residents.

Deaths were up considerably across the state at 97, including three residents. Deaths have reached 36,954. The breakdown of deaths are 36,227 residents and 727 non-residents who have died from COVID.

Testing was up throughout the state with 61,238 tests processed, of which 58,447 had negative results. The tests produced a positivity rate of 4.56%.

COVID numbers across the U.S. are continuing to fall as there were 71,132 new cases reported between Saturday and Monday. With the number of states not reporting on weekends, daily counts for Saturday and Sunday have become incomplete. That was 17,672 fewer cases than were reported last Saturday through Monday.

The daily new case average in the U.S. has now reached 30,439, which is a decrease of 19% from just a week ago.

There were 1,164 deaths over the three-day period, which is a decrease of 144 from the previous week. The seven-day average on deaths is now 561, which is a decrease of 14% from numbers seen a week ago. The number of average deaths is the lowest its been since July.

Hospitalizations and ICU cases are both down at least 10% from last week, while the country’s positivity rate was down to 2.58%.

Michigan continues to fight its way back from its recent outbreak and now the seven-day average for new cases is back under 2,000 at 1,996. That’s a 27% decrease from a week ago and a 74% improvement from one month ago. The state’s positivity rate is down to 6.45%, a 59% decrease from a month ago, while deaths are at 57, which is actually a 6% increase from a month ago, but the lag time on death reporting makes it the least accurate metric in terms of how a state is currently faring with the virus.

According to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering, the U.S. has seen 32.98 million cases and had 587,035 deaths.

Globally, there have been 163.78 million cases and 3.39 million deaths.