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Duke Energy offers payment plans as billing resumes

SEBRING — In March, Duke Energy suspended disconnection of power because of inability to pay, waived late fees and credit/debit card payment fees due to coronavirus shutting down the economy. After six months, Duke is returning to its standard billing practices.

Duke customers began receiving notices Monday, however, disconnections will not begin until Sept. 2. Duke Energy has programs to help customers pay for their bills, but they need to act quickly, according to Duke’s Corporate Communications spokeswoman Ana Gibbs.

“Currently there are a variety of payment options and financial assistance programs available to customers,” she said. “If customers don’t take action now, those opportunities may not be available in the future.”

The company has enhanced its customer care to help clients, residential and small business owners, pay their bills, according to a news article on Duke’s website.

“Duke Energy Florida has been proactively working with customers who are accumulating past-due balances on their utility bills, offering payment plans to mitigate potentially more significant financial challenges in the future,” Gibbs said. “However, some customers are currently not paying any portion of their bill, building up a large balance that will be harder to pay off later. Some customers will continue to build a debt that will become difficult or perhaps overwhelming to pay back.”

Catherine Stempien, Duke Energy Florida president, said in a July 14th article, customers are the company’s top priority.

“As financial assistance has become available for qualified customers, we believe now is the right time to begin resuming more traditional operations,” she said. “We will, however, continue to help our customers access resources to assist them and provide additional information that can help reduce their bills.”

Duke Energy customers should call 800-700-8744 or visit to make payment arrangements or payment assistance.

In April, the Duke Energy Foundation gave $1 million communities they serve to help with food and utility bills. One of the organizations to receive funds was United Way of Central Florida, which serves Highlands County.

State and county COVID numbers getting better

A Florida judge temporarily blocked Gov. Ron DeSantis and top education officials from forcing public schools to reopen brick-and-mortar classrooms amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, ruling that the state’s order “arbitrarily disregards safety.”

In his ruling, Leon County Judge Charles Dodson said the mandate to reopen schools usurped local control from school districts in deciding for themselves whether it was safe for students, teachers and staffers to return.

The Florida Education Association had sued the state after Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran issued an order earlier this summer mandating that schools reopen classrooms by Aug. 31 or risk losing funding.

“The districts have no meaningful alternative,” the judge wrote in his opinion.

“If an individual school district chooses safety, that is, delaying the start of schools until it individually determines it is safe to do so for its county, it risks losing state funding, even though every student is being taught,” he ruled.

Monday’s COVID-19 update from the Florida Department of Health showed new cases were on the decline with only 2,258 new cases added for the state. The percentage of positivity rate was only 5.20%, which is the second lowest since Aug. 12. The lowest percentage of positivity rate was 4.9% on Aug. 21. It has been 11 days with a positivity rate under 9%.

The new infections bring the total cases for Florida to 602,829, including non-residents. Monday brought 72 deaths attributed to coronavirus. The death toll is 10,534, including non-residents for the state. The state crossed the 600,000 threshold on Sunday.

Highlands County, only added five new cases of COVID-19 for a total of 1,740 cases, including non-residents. The positivity rate on Monday was 3.66%; a significant drop from 8.72% positivity on Sunday. The 3.66% positivity is also the second lowest rate since Aug. 10. On Friday, the positivity rate was 2.68%. The World Health Organization recommends a positivity rate of 5% or less for a two-week average before reopening.

There were no new deaths, so the death toll remains at 53.

According to the Agency for Health Care Administration, there are currently 24 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 as of 2:01 p.m. Monday. There have been 189 hospitalizations in total. There have been three patients discharged since Sunday. AHCA shows the county’s bed census at 175 and 79 beds available or 31.10%. ICU bed census for the county is 29 with five beds available or 14.71%.

There have been 926 women infected with coronavirus and 807 men and one unknown. The age range is from 0-98 years old. Monday’s median age is 60 and the overall median age is 48. For county residents, there have been 1,021 whites infected, 263 African Americans diagnosed, 261 “other” and 189 people of “unknown” ethnicity, per the FDOH report.

Nationwide, there have been 5,723,181 with 176,991 deaths. Globally, there have been 23,507852 cases reported with 809,999 deaths.

On Sunday, the Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization, EUA, for convalescent plasma as an addition to the fight against COVID -19 in hospital patients. According to the FDA’s press release regarding the available scientific evidence, the plasma might be effective in treating COVID-19. The FDA says while there are some risks, “ the known and potential benefits of the product outweigh the known and potential risks of the product.”

Those who have recovered from the coronavirus can donate their blood plasma, which has antibodies to COVID-19. When given to seriously ill COVID patients, it could help lessen the severity of symptoms in patients, especially, those who are not responding well to other treatments, according WebMD.

Some 70,000 patients have received the treatment so far. FDA officials said they were grateful for the blood donors who had donated already and urged other coronavirus survivors to also donate.

Some information provided by the News Service of Florida.

County temporary attorney on duty

SEBRING — Sherry Sutphen of Bell & Roper P.A. in Orlando is now Highlands County’s interim county attorney.

County commissioners have approved a budget amendment of $62,000 to pay for immediate temporary legal services. Sutphen had her first meeting with the board last week as interim attorney.

Previously, she was at the Aug. 4 meeting, representing the county’s interest in regard to former county attorney Joy Carmichael taking the option to resign and take a settlement versus having a public hearing about her job.

Last Tuesday, commissioners rearranged $62,000 to cover her remaining costs for the fiscal year.

After that Sutphen presented a legal item to the board.

“Now that funding has been approved for me, I’ve decided to do some work,” Sutphen said.

She said that the state had finally caught up with the county’s 2010 early adoption of e-verification requirement for contractors.

State legislation will go into effect in 2021, and Sutphen asked the county to rescind its requirement, with its specific language, and let her draft new language for contracts in accordance with the upcoming state law, due to take effect by January.

Rescinding the specific language, she said, would give her the flexibility to draft appropriate language for each new contract.

She said the statute gives counties “teeth” to penalize contractors for not following the E-Verify guidelines, such as termination of contracts. It also provides enforcement powers on general contractors if subcontractors don’t comply with the regulations.

E-Verify is an internet-based system that compares information entered by an employer from an employee’s Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification, to records available to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration to confirm employment eligibility.

If has been criticized by the National Immigration Law Center, which contends that “both U.S. citizens who were born abroad and authorized immigrant workers are more likely to get negatively affected by a system error, which can result in a job loss.”

However, the Department of Homeland Security claims E-Verify is the best means available to verify employment eligibility of newly hired employees because it “virtually eliminates Social Security mismatch letters, improves wage and tax reporting accuracy, protects U.S. worker jobs and helps employers maintain a legal workforce.”

Elwell asked Sutphen if the state law would affect agricultural workers. It would, she said, but would have a greater affect on county contractors, directly.

Ray Royce, speaking as a member of the Lake Placid Town Council, said he would have concern about whether or not the County Commission would review contract language before it’s enacted, especially with regard to contractors who work with the town and county through interlocal agreement.

From an agriculturalist standpoint, as a citrus grower, Royce said there is still language to use the I-9 system in federal and state regulations, and the local language.

For the local growers, he said, it didn’t have as much of an impact because growers did not deal directly with the county.

As long as the county did not require private-sector employers to use E-Verify only, he was OK with it.

Sutphen said it would only require the system on county-paid contractors.