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State minimum wage battle heating up

While most of the attention on November’s election is focused on the presidential race, it’s far from being the only hotly contested race on the ballot. There’s a battle starting to brew over Amendment 2, the constitutional amendment that will raise Florida’s minimum wage to $15 an hour over a period of six years.

If the amendment passes, the state’s minimum wage will increase from its current $8.56 an hour to $10 on Sept. 30, 2021 and go up $1 an hour each year until it hits $15 on Sept. 30, 2026.

Orlando attorney John Morgan — the man instrumental in getting medical marijuana laws on the books in 2016 — is leading the charge behind the amendment and he feels confident about its chances in November. It’s hard to blame him, as the most recent Monmouth University poll showed 67% of registered Florida voters support the amendment. Only 26% of respondents said they plan to vote against it.

“Today, I am proud to stand alongside my fellow compassionate Floridians who believe, as I do, that their neighbors deserve the dignity of a living wage,” Morgan said in a press release.

Morgan isn’t afraid to put his money behind his beliefs, as the vast majority of funds donated to Florida for a Fair Wage, the sponsor of the amendment, have come from Morgan and his law firms. Of the $4.77 million raised by the organization through Sept. 18, $4.2 million was from Morgan, according to Ballotpedia.

Supporters of the amendment say the current minimum wage simply isn’t enough.

“The League supports secure equal rights and equal opportunity for all, and promotes social and economic justice for all Americans. Florida’s present minimum wage yields $17,800 a year for a full-time worker, which doesn’t come close to a living wage for a family of four,” the League of Women Voters of Florida said in its statement supporting the bill.

Opposition to the amendment comes from the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Farm Bureau, among others.

“As the General Election nears, businesses across all industries are growing increasingly concerned about the devastating consequences Ballot Amendment 2 will have on jobs across the state,” said Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. “From farms to retail stores, this policy experiment will impact all types of small businesses and the jobs they provide for Florida families.”

Opponents say increased wages will lead to fewer jobs and reduced hours for those who are able to remain employed, while the “trickle-down” effect will impact those on fixed incomes.

“Ballot Amendment 2 is a job killer. It will hurt businesses, and it will destroy Florida’s economy,” Dover said. “We are putting more than 2 million potential jobs at stake here in Florida. This is a bad amendment.”

The amendment needs 60% of the vote to pass.

School District receives Energy Excellence Award
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SEBRING — The School Board of Highlands County’s energy conservation efforts have paid off big in recent years through a program that has saved the district more than $2 million in energy costs.

After surpassing $2 million in savings from an energy conservation partnership, the School Board of Highlands County received the Energy Excellence Award from Cenergistic, a nationwide sustainability company.

The Energy Excellence Award is given to clients who have reached noteworthy financial savings from an energy program.

The School Board of Highlands County’s program, which has been in place since 2015, has prevented carbon emissions equivalent to 24 million miles of automobile travel.

The program achieved such success the district renewed its partnership with Cenergistic in February.

“The School Board of Highlands County has set the example for sustainability across the region,” said Steve Jones, Regional Vice President at Cenergistic. “This program has steadily increased savings since implementation and the trajectory is only pointing up.”

School District personnel work closely with Cenergistic engineers, experts and the Energy Specialist to audit and optimize energy-using systems across the organization to achieve healthier, more efficient buildings. The Energy Specialist tracks energy consumption at all campuses with state-of-the-art technology to identify waste and protect occupants.

In response to COVID-related shutdowns, the Energy Specialist used hundreds of facility audits to improve air quality and support facilities operations to ensure students can return to classes safely.

“Our partnership has allowed the School Board to recoup money that would otherwise go to electricity providers and redirect them to student learning and safely reopening schools,” said Mike Averyt, School Board assistant superintendent of business operations. “The District has benefited greatly from this program.”

Since the start of the contract, Tracy Robinson, as the Cenergistic energy specialist, has been checking the district’s campuses and facilities for compliance with the energy-saving initiatives and looking for any maintenance or facility issues that are wasting energy.

According to the energy program renewal, the School Board is paying $149,000 per year for three years with any savings after that cost staying within the School District for its use.

Since 1986 Cenergistic has partnered with more than 1,470 educational, municipal government and healthcare organizations to achieve $5.8 billion in utility savings and cost avoidance.

These strong results come from the application of Cenergistic’s organizational behavior-based strategies and are enhanced by its proprietary software platform to drive building and equipment optimization. The Cenergistic energy conservation program reduces utility consumption by an average of 25% with no capital investment while maintaining or improving the comfort and quality of building environments.

HCSO makes massive drug bust
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AVON PARK — A traffic stop in Avon Park on Sunday led to one of the largest drug seizures in recent memory for the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office. Deputies confiscated enough fentanyl to kill nearly 40,000 people, as well as over a pound of heroin and nearly a pound of cocaine.

Around 7:40 p.m., Deputy Seth Abeln saw a blue Ford Focus on North Central Avenue that had a tag light out. After Abeln stopped the vehicle, Deputy Ben Jones and K-9 Gentry were called to do a free air sniff of the vehicle. Gentry indicated there were drugs in the car.

A search of the vehicle turned up a staggering amount of narcotics:

• 554 grams of heroin

• 450 grams of cocaine

• 99.6 grams of fentanyl

• 975 oxycodone pills

• 107 Xanax pills

• 90 vape pens with liquid THC

A dose of 2-3 milligrams of fentanyl is enough to be deadly, meaning there was enough of the drug to kill 40,000 people using 2.5 milligrams as a fatal dose. To put that in perspective, that would be enough to kill nearly 40 percent of the people in Highlands County.

The street value of the fentanyl is $15,000. Add that to the $20,000 of cocaine, $40,000 of oxycodone and $45,000 of heroin, and the total seizure is worth $120,000 on the street, not including the value of the vape pens.

There was also a loaded handgun inside the car. The driver, 40-year-old Ruben Ramirez-Rivera, was arrested and charged with:

• trafficking cocaine

• trafficking heroin

• trafficking oxycodone

• trafficking a controlled substance

• possession of opium or a derivative (fentanyl) with intent to sell/deliver

• possession of a Schedule III or IV drug with intent to sell/deliver

• possession of heroin with intent to sell/deliver

• possession of cocaine with intent to sell/deliver

• felony possession of marijuana

• possession of a weapon during commission of a first-degree felony

• possession of drug equipment

Rivera is being held without bond at the Highlands County Jail.

“I’m very proud of the work done by the deputies involved in this arrest,” Sheriff Paul Blackman said. “To take this amount of drugs off the street is a huge accomplishment, and our county is safer because of it.”

Virus numbers down, but fewer test results
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SEBRING — The Florida COVID-19 numbers are down with only 5 new resident deaths reported on Monday and 738 new cases, which is the first time since June 8 with fewer than than 1,000 new cases in a day.

But, there were only about 20,000 test results statewide from Sunday compared to about 50,000 on Saturday and about 73,000 on Friday, which is likely a factor in the lower number of positive cases.

According to the overall count of cases, Highlands County had only 4 new coronavirus cases for a total of 2,160 and no new deaths for a total of 86.

But, the previous day testing data shows Highlands with 8 new cases from 310 tests for a positivity rate of 2.58%. The state positivity rate was 4.22%, according to the latest update from the Florida Department of Health.

Hillsborough County, with 122, was the only Florida county with a triple-digit increase in virus cases.

It was the first time in many weeks that Dade County had less than 100 new daily cases with 71 new cases in the Monday update.

There were 13 counties with no new cases: Calhoun, Citrus, Franklin, Gadsden, Gilchrist, Glades, Gulf, Hamilton, Hendry, Holmes, Lafayette, Liberty and Wakulla.

Currently there are 23 hospitalized in Highlands due to COVID-19.

Florida’s total number of COVID-19 cases is 701,302 with 14,037 resident deaths.

Florida resident cases involving people ages 25 to 34 numbers 127,272, the largest number in any age group.

There have been 4,492 deaths of Florida residents age 85 or older, the largest number in any age group.

There have been 5,721 deaths of residents and staff members of long-term care facilities.

Statewide there are 2,118 people hospitalized with primary diagnoses of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus. That is an increase of 15 people hospitalized from the Sunday count.

Nationwide there have been 7,118,523 cases with 204,790 deaths.

Worldwide there have been 33,156,812 cases with 998,696 deaths due to COVID-19.