SEBRING - Highlands County will hire four workers for its Healthy Families program, and the commissioners formally adopted a policy on prayer at meetings.
Healthy Families is a child abuse and neglect prevention effort. Workers visit the homes in specific geographic areas and teach skills to parents expecting a child or who have a baby younger than three months.
The county received a $313,000 grant that required a $78,000 match of cash and in-kind services, and agreed to serve 92 families during the next fiscal year. The program will partner with Heartland for Children, the Early Learning Coalition and Tri-County Human Services,
The agenda item drew immediate objections from conservatives in the audience.
"You need to vote no on this," said John Drennan. "Their grandmas and grandpas should help."
"This is for newborns, so their children can grow up healthy and safe," Community Programs Manager Chris Benson said.
The program received a 30 percent increase in funding through the grant. Before, each family was budgeted for $3,200 in services, now it's $3,400.
The county currently employs four caseworkers in the program. "We're doubling the size," Benson added. "We've had a high turnover rate."
Sen. Denise Grimsley helped bring more money to the local program, he said. "We're currently under-served in the community."
If Healthy Families is successful, it will reduce the need for other services "that are a strain and burden on the local tax base," Benson said.
Has the Healthy Families program been this large before? Commissioner Don Elwell asked.
"We cut back a few years ago," County Administrator June Fisher answered. "It has been at a higher rate. We have had a hard time with turnovers. We had vacancies, and we merged two positions into one. We didn't lay anybody off."
"Again," Commissioner Greg Harris added, "This is a preventative program. We can measure the success of this story in a few years."
By a 5-0 vote, the county also established who will pray at each commission meeting.
In the past, the chair has asked a commissioner or audience member to lead the prayer. To prevent future lawsuits over public prayer, County Attorney Ross Macbeth offered the codification last week. Pastors will be selected from all congregations.
"This is to protect us from outside forces," Richie said. "It's (the county attorney's) job to do everything in his power to do that, and he has taken a pro-active stance. This is what other (communities) have done."
Only two audience members objected. Gene Reese wanted a time limit on prayers: "If I want to be listening to a sermon, I'll go to church. I'm not here to hear someone rant on and on about their religion."
Two commissioners nodded their agreement. Reese also wanted the prayer conducted in English.
The second came from George Hall, senior pastor of Avon Park Lakes Baptist Church. "I just disagree with the whole premise. There are more municipalities that don't have a policy than do have policies. It doesn't matter if you have a policy or not. If they want to sue you, they are going to sue you. I think you are opening a can of worms and you're never going to get the worms back in the can. You have to just trust in God."
"I think we ought to be proactive," said Commissioner Greg Harris. "I want prayer and an invocation at our meetings."
Over the objections of conservatives in the audience, the commissioners also approved a $1,293 second mortgage to a local homeowner. This will allow him to modify his first mortgage under a foreclosure prevention program.
The borrower did not make payments for 55 months, Elwell noted.
"Did you drive by the house?" Commissioner Ron Handley asked. "Without somebody looking at it, we don't even know if it's worth $52,000."
"How many years have we been telling the county to get out of the housing business?" said Jack Nelson, president of the local tea party. "Put them in an apartment. You're giving him a loan and he can't even pay that back at $50 a month?"
Does the homeowner work, Highlands County Homeowners Association chair Gene Reese asked from the audience. "If you're going to be in the housing business again, you're going to be in the foreclosure business again. "Vetting the people who are going to be in the house is the highest priority."
The lending institution wouldn't loan money if the client wasn't working or if the house wasn't worth it, Benson suggested.
"We can't just slam the door and walk away," Commission Chair Jack Richie said. "We have to clean up the mess. That's our job."