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Funds moved to cover costs, pay

SEBRING — This time of year, county commissioners and directors start preparing to hash out the next fiscal year budget.

At this same time, David Nitz, manager of the Office of Management and Budget, brings budget amendments to the Board of County Commissioners to make adjustments where the approved budget either had too much or too little assigned to one cost or another.

It happened at the two most recent county commission meetings, with a bit of scolding from Commissioner Arlene Tuck, given her history of overseeing budgets in Lake Placid when she worked as town clerk, prior to her election to town council and then county commission.

During their first meeting of the month, Nitz brought them two budget amendments. One was to reverse a portion of encumbrances that were rolled over from Fiscal Year 2021-22 into Fiscal Year 2022-23, which would decrease the budget by $640,019.

The second was a budget increase, bringing $297,188 from reserve funds to cover cost overruns in the Courthouse Façade Repairs project.

Tuck was prepared to pass the amendment, as written, but had misgivings with having to make a budget amendment in the first place.

“I just don’t really like, right here, it’s only been what, five months, and we’re already having to borrow money from someplace else?” Tuck said.

She made the motion to approve the budget amendment, shortly after Clerk of Courts Jerome Kaszubowski told commissioners that, if they approved the change order right then, the change order would move forward on the Courthouse.

That passed unanimously.

In the second February meeting, commissioners agreed to raise the pay grades for the county’s custodial supervisor to $47,382 to $71,072, as well as for the two maintenance assistant supervisors, who cover buildings and projects separately, to $42,169 to $63,254.

The budget amendment there asked commissioners to update the Parks & Facilities Department job descriptions and increase salaries by a total of just less than $12,814 annually. Lance Marine, Parks & Facilities director, told commissioners he could cover costs under the current year budget by using lapsed salaries and wages from two vacant positions.

Marine said one of his reasons for this change was to get the current supervisors to a pay level that would allow the county to hire competitively when they retire.

Tuck said she didn’t mind the upgrades, but asked that the upgrades not happen until April 1, the start of the next fiscal quarter, to save at least some of that increase.

She suggested that anyone who comes in after the budget is approved for a fiscal year, who wants a pay-grade increase, should see it start April 1.

Marine said the $12,000 figure covers the whole year, and he expects it will take a while to get that position filled. Ultimately, he said, any impact to the budget will not be that full amount.

Tuck said she’d noticed quite a few upgraded pay and benefits packages for people already employed with the county.

“I think that you need to be more efficient with the budget,” Tuck said, pointing out that pay and position upgrades are taking place within less than six months of the start of the Fiscal Year. “Why didn’t you do it when we had the budget?”

Tuck was quick to point out that she wasn’t only, in her words, “fussing at” Marine, but wanted all directors to budget more tightly.

Commissioner Scott Kirouac said he understood Tuck’s concerns, but pointed out this was not money from reserve or contingency. He also pointed out that the county has to provide services to the people of the county.

“If we are not competitive, and able to hire people, then those services are going to suffer,” Kirouac said, with less staff and longer times to get things done.

Steve Kempe logs 34 years with AP Fire Department

AVON PARK — Steve Kempe’s first shot at joining the Avon Park Park Fire Department turned out to be a missed opportunity on his part, but a year later his second chance turned out to be the charm leading to a 34-year career with the department.

Kempe started working Feb. 27, 1989, and started his last 24-hour shift at 8 a.m. Monday, Feb. 27, 2023.

He was born in California, but his family moved to Brandon when he was 6 months old. Then his family resided in the Sebring area when he was in fifth through seventh grades. Then it was back to Brandon.

He was going to the Tampa Fire Academy where he met a friend, Lonnie Shields, who one day spotted a newspaper advertisement for openings at the Avon Park Fire Department.

“We both had our certifications by then,” Kempe noted.

Kempe told Shields. “I know where Avon Park is.”

“Having lived in Sebring, I know exactly where Avon Park is,” he said.

As it turned out, they knew the “where,” but didn’t know the “when” in pursuit of the job opportunity.

“We ended up coming to the Avon Park Fire Department in 1988 and when we got there it was a Friday when we arrived and it was the previous Wednesday when we were supposed to be there,” Kempe said. “So we were late and we ended up not getting hired.”

Kempe remembers after learning of their lost opportunity it was time to get something to eat and then-fire chief Terry Feickert directed them to the Wild Turkey Tavern.

Back then, getting a job with a fire department was really hard as things weren’t expanding those days and new departments weren’t opening whereas now there is almost a need for firefighters, he explained.

Then a year later there was another ad for the Avon Park Fire Department, he said.

A month before Kempe was hired, Joe Trainor became chief of the Avon Park Fire Department.

Trainor was from Tampa and he knew all the people who had trained at the Fire Academy, Kempe said. They ended up hiring three new firefighters at that time, which ended up being Shields, Joe Berry and himself.

Berry left to work in Reedy Creek and Shields, who was a little older, had previously retired, Kempe explained.

In talking about any close calls during his career with the department, Kempe remembered a fire call to a T-shirt printing business that did silk screening.

It was before the two-in/two-out protocol, so there would be two firefighters inside a building with no one on the outside, he said.

This was an incident where the firefighters were pulling the ceiling down since the fire was in the ceiling, but they didn’t realize that acetone and other chemicals had spilled, Kempe said.

“We were pulling the ceiling down and the fire came down and the next thing you know the whole room around us was lit up,” he said. “I remember Lance Truax, who worked for EMS, he was already putting his gear on because he had seen the fire, but we just took the handline [firehose] that we had and started extinguishing it on the way out. We got out of there.

“That was kind of one close call,” Kempe said.

Back then it was a two-man minimum so they would actually be down to two guys, Kempe said, so at times if there was a big two-story house fire there would only be two firefighters on duty and they would page out for off-duty personnel and the few volunteers that they had.

“So for awhile it would just be you and another guy fighting a fire by yourselves for 30 minutes or so until people came to give you a hand and then you don’t know if anybody is coming or not,” he said.

In retirement, Kempe has a spot in Brevard County where he plans to enjoy the water and fishing while maintaining his residency in Sebring.

Putin orders Ukraine border tightening as drones hit Russia

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the border with Ukraine tightened Tuesday after several drones attacked inside Russian territory, including one that crashed just 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Moscow in an alarming development for Russian defenses.

The drones caused no injuries but raised questions about the Kremlin’s security more than a year after Russia’s full-scale invasion of its neighbor.

Moscow blamed Kyiv for the attacks. Ukrainian officials did not immediately claim responsibility, but they similarly avoided directly acknowledging responsibility for past strikes and sabotage while emphasizing Ukraine’s right to hit any target in Russia.

Although Putin did not refer to any specific attacks in a speech in the Russian capital, his comments came hours after the drones targeted several areas in southern and western Russia. Authorities closed the airspace over St. Petersburg in response to what some reports said was a drone.

Also Tuesday, several Russian television stations aired a missile attack warning that officials blamed on a hacking attack.

The drone attacks on Monday night and Tuesday morning targeted regions inside Russia along the border with Ukraine and deeper into the country, according to local Russian authorities.

A drone fell near the village of Gubastovo, 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Moscow, Andrei Vorobyov, governor of the region surrounding the Russian capital, said in an online statement.

The drone did not inflict any damage, Vorobyov said, but it likely targeted “a civilian infrastructure object.”

Pictures of the drone showed it was a Ukrainian-made model with a reported range of up to 800 kilometers (nearly 500 miles) but no capacity to carry a large load of explosives.

Russian forces early Tuesday shot down a Ukrainian drone over the Bryansk region, local Gov. Aleksandr Bogomaz said in a Telegram post.

Three drones also targeted Russia’s Belgorod region on Monday night, with one flying through an apartment window in its namesake capital, local authorities reported. Regional Gov. Vyacheslav Gladkov said the drones caused minor damage to buildings and cars.

The Russian Defense Ministry said Ukraine used drones to attack facilities in the Krasnodar region and neighboring Adygea. It said the drones were brought down by electronic warfare assets, adding that one of them crashed into a field and another diverted from its flight path and missed an infrastructure facility it was supposed to attack.

While Ukrainian drone strikes on the Russian border regions of Bryansk and Belgorod are not unusual, the hits on the Krasnodar and Adygea regions further south were noteworthy.

A fire broke out at an oil depot in Russia’s Krasnodar region on Monday, Russia’s state RIA Novosti agency reported. Russian Telegram channels claimed that two drones exploded near the depot.

Some Russian commentators described the drone attacks as an attempt by Ukraine to showcase its capability to strike areas deep behind the lines, foment tensions in Russia and rally the Ukrainian public. Some Russian war bloggers described the raids as a possible rehearsal for a bigger, more ambitious attack.

Last year, Russian authorities repeatedly reported shooting down Ukrainian drones over annexed Crimea. In December, the Russian military said Ukraine used drones to hit two bases for long-range bombers deep inside Russian territory.

Separately, the government of St. Petersburg — Russia’s second-largest city about 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) north of the border with Ukraine — said early Tuesday that it was temporarily halting all departures and arrivals at the city’s main airport, Pulkovo. It did not give a reason for the move.

Hours earlier, unconfirmed reports on Russia’s Telegram social network referred to the airspace over St. Petersburg being shut down and to overflights by Russian warplanes. It wasn’t immediately clear whether this was connected to drone attacks in Russia’s south.

The Russian military said its air defense forces in western Russia conducted drills on “detection, interception and identification” of enemy targets in its airspace, and in coordination with civilian air traffic services in an emergency situation.

The Russian Defense Ministry did not specifically mention St. Petersburg, but its statement appeared designed to explain the temporary closure of the airspace.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to comment on the situation in St. Petersburg, urging reporters to wait for details from the country’s aviation authorities or the military. He noted that Putin had “full information” on the situation.

Speaking at Russia’s main security agency, the FSB, Putin urged the service to tighten security on the Ukraine border.

Russian media reported Tuesday that an air raid alarm interrupted the programming of several TV channels and radio stations in several Russian regions.

Footage posted by some news sites showed TV sets displaying a yellow sign with a person heading to a bomb shelter, with a female voice repeating: “Attention! Air raid alarm. Everyone should head to a shelter immediately.”

Russia’s Emergency Ministry said in an online statement that the announcement was a hoax “resulting from a hacking of the servers of radio stations and TV channels in some regions of the country.”

In other developments, four people were killed and five others wounded Tuesday by renewed Russian shelling of the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, regional Gov. Oleksandr Prokudin said in a Telegram.

A 68-year-old man was also killed as Russian forces shelled Kupiansk, a town in Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv region, its Gov. Oleh Syniehubov said.

The fiercest fighting continued to be in eastern areas of Ukraine, where Russia wants control over all four of the provinces it illegally annexed in September.

Ukrainian officials said that Russian forces have deployed additional troops and equipment, including modern T-90 tanks, in those areas.

Meanwhile, satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press appeared to show a Beriev A-50 early warning aircraft was parked at a Belarus air base just before a claimed attack by partisans there.

Images from Planet Labs PBC shows the A-50, a late Soviet-era aircraft known for its distinctive rotodome above its fuselage, parked on the apron of the Machulishchy Air Base near Minsk, Belarus’ capital, on Feb. 19.

A lower-resolution image taken on Feb. 23 showed a similarly shaped aircraft still parked there, though heavy cloud cover has blocked any images since.

Belarusian opposition organization BYPOL claimed that guerrillas damaged the A-50 in an attack Sunday.

The Associated Press has been unable to independently confirm the claimed attack, which both Belarus and Russia have yet to acknowledge.

Associated Press Writer Jon Gambrell contributed to this report from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Culver's buttering up to Sebring location

SEBRING — Construction on a Culver’s restaurant in Sebring could start as soon as next month with the review of the site plan nearly complete.

Construction Journal, an online listing of construction projects, estimates a $1.3 million project cost for new Culver’s with the subcontractor bidding and the construction start expected in April.

City Administrator Scott Noethlich said the city has a full set of plans for the construction of the building for Culver’s at 2651 U.S. 27 South.

The site plan review is just about completed, he said.

“It would appear we will have a Culver’s locating here, but we are still in that process,” Noetlich said. The Building Department won’t issue a building permit until there is a “final” on the site plan, which includes the landscaping, where the stormwater features are going, and the parking layout and number of parking spaces, etc.

Noethlich said the site plan will through Central Florida Regional Planning Council and staff in the city’s Building and Planning & Zoning Departments.

It won’t require a rezone or anything of that nature so it shouldn’t require going before the Planning & Zoning Board nor the City Council, Noethlich said. “I think it has its proper zoning already. That parcel is already zoned C-1 so it has commercial zoning it is not going to need to before council for that particular parcel.”

S & L Properties Sebring LLC purchased the parcel slated for the new Culver’s for $2.6 million in October 2022.

S & L Companies in Portage, Wisconsin, is a Culver’s Restaurant franchise group, which began in 1994 with its first Culver’s restaurant in Portage. Since then, the group has grown to 88 Culver’s franchises in four states (Florida, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin) with owner/operator partners in every restaurant it operates.

S & L Companies has many Culver’s in the Tampa Bay area including Brandon, Tampa, St. Petersburg and Bradenton, but the company does not have the existing Culver’s locations closest to Highlands County such as Davenport, Haines City, Port Charlotte and Winter Haven.

In 1984, Craig and Lea Culver, along with Craig’s parents, George and Ruth, opened the first Culver’s in the family’s hometown of Sauk City, Wisconsin, and began serving ButterBurgers and Frozen Custard.

Culver’s strategic growth plan includes restaurants from the Midwest south to Texas, west to Arizona and Utah, and east to South Carolina and Florida.

Overall Culver’s has 899 locations.

Each restaurant, which seats between 98-118 guests, employs between 30 to 75 team members year-round, including seasonal positions.