SEBRING - Highlands County commissioners decided Tuesday to invite Sheriff Susan Benton to a Jan. 14 workshop before converting Kenilworth Center into office space and moving 70 deputies and staff, .
Two weeks ago, Assistant County Administrator Randal Vosburg requested a lease renewal at Liberty Star Plaza, an office building in south Sebring where most of the investigators were relocated three years ago from the downtown sheriff's office. However, the landlord wanted an 8 percent rent hike.
Commissioner Ron Handley said a brainstorm came to him the morning of the commission meeting: they had already planned to build a property and evidence facility on a vacant lot the county owns, so Handley thought the deputies could occupy the remaining 10,000 square feet in the adjacent Kenilworth Building, which the county also owns.
"We could probably build this thing out with a few year's rent," Handley said. "I know she wants a new building. We all want a new building. But we can't just afford it right how."
Commissioners waived three ordinances to employ only local contractors and subcontractors to convert an 18,000 square-foot metal storage building into office space.
"I spent some time this week with the sheriff, and trying to bring myself up to date," Commissioner Jim Brooks said. "All this started before any one of us were on the commission."
In 2005, he said, a committee chaired by former County Commissioner Barbara Stewart suggested replacing the current 1950s sheriff's office, which has sewer, plumbing and heating problems. Subsequent committees planned a new $11 million building on George Boulevard.
Since then, the county has spent $1 million, "and we've done nothing but renovate some of the current office," Brooks said. "The problem I have, I'm not the sheriff of this county, and I don't think we've talk to her recently."
Benton was out of town and didn't know the commissioners had discussed moving her deputies out of Liberty Star until after the meeting, Brooks said.
"I don't have a problem in going forward with the proposal, " Brooks said, "But before we spend any money, we need to have a serious heart-to-heart with the sheriff."
"It is time for us to get off the fence on this one," Commissioner Don Elwell agreed.
In the meantime, Vosburg went back to the Liberty Star landlord and arranged a seven-month lease extension, and County Engineer Ramon Gavarrete said he would continue to work on a floor plan of the proposed offices for the Kenilworth Building.
Commissioners Handley and Jack Richie voted no, but three others gave Gavarrete permission to arrange to buy the frontage of Sebring Racquet Club for a turn lane and a five-foot-wide sidewalk for Sebring Parkway Phase II, which leads from downtown Sebring to Highlands Regional Medical Center.
The strip will cost almost $100,000, Gavarrete said, which includes attorney fees and a title search.
"We're only paying Mr. Yarbrough $14,000," Handley said.
But that's a vacant lot, County Attorney Ross Macbeth pointed out. The better comparison would be the Yarbrough Tire property.
"I don't know why we're paying for the seller's land planning fees. And likewise the engineering fees. My number is more like $45,000," Handley countered.
"We're not impacting his parking lot?" Brooks asked.
"It will be sealed and re-striped," Gavarrete said. "They may lose a parking space or two. But we're not taking any asphalt."
"When we looked at long-term planning, the ideal is to have the multi-use path all on the same side of the road," County Administrator June Fisher said. That way, Sebring High School and Fred Wild Elementary School students wouldn't have to cross Sebring Parkway at Youth Care Lane, walk down the railroad side of the street, then cross again if they needed to be back on the school side.
"I agree," Handley said, "but that doesn't mean we should just roll over and write a check."
"The price was $160,000," Brooks said. "I think we've discussed it long enough. We need to move forward."
The code enforcement policy was not changed. Development Services Director Mark Hill asked that complainers be required to sign a document, but commissioners turned down that notion by a 4-1 voe.
"Thirty percent are unfounded and may be a result of disputes between neighbors," Hill said.
"Not letting it stay anonymous is a mistake," said Handley, "and the sheriff agreed."
The department currently has 450 open complaints, even though the sheriff's department helped clear the entire list a few years ago.
"Maybe she could help us out quarterly," Harris ventured.
Commissioners approved a five-year road plan, which includes dredging the channel between Lake Jackson and Little Lake Jackson, a sidewalk down Memorial Drive and Sebring Parkway, and Tangerine Drive in Lake Placid.
Gavarrete said the county will vacate a portion of Klondike Road in Lake Blue Estates. "LaGrow Road is not being closed. The sign has to be on LaGrow Road."