SEBRING - What was to be a pro forma budget meeting got hostile Thursday night.
After budget chief Tim Mechling presented the $122.7 million budget, Highlands County commissioners didn't change the 7.1 mill rate and received kudos from tea partiers and members of the audience.
That's when Paul McGehee, chair of the Industrial Development Authority-Economic Development Commission, rose from the audience to ask a question.
Commissioners had allotted $216,000 to the IDA in the current year, but last month defunded the agency for the 2013-14 fiscal year, which starts in October. They stuck with that decision despite two pleas of former IDA chair John Shoop.
"For a point of clarity," McGehee said, "We have four months of operating capital left. I don't know when to come back to you."
"We're not making any promises," commission chair Jack Richie said. "We will take a sharp look in six months. We took three votes, all three came up the same way."
Richie was ready to move on, but Commissioner Don Elwell wanted to hear more about McGehee's math. Shoop said two weeks ago that the IDA had six months of reserves.
For more exact numbers, McGehee deferred to IDA director Stephen Weeks, who started toward the microphone, but Richie shook his head no. Weeks returned to his chair.
"Would you be open to a meeting outside this meeting with staff?" McGehee asked.
"We need to know that number, tonight or later," Commissioner Greg Harris intervened. "Let's do it now."
"We didn't have the accurate information the other three times?" Richie grumbled. "And now, at the 12th hour, they come in and say 'We have four months?'"
"I don't think they said it was six months," Commissioner Jim Brooks said. "I think that was math we did. It's a public hearing."
"If it's okay with you," Elwell encouraged Richie.
"What kind of problem does this cause?" Richie turned to County Administrator June Fisher.
"We're okay," Fisher said.
"We took three separate votes on this more," Richie thundered. "More than anything else. Now we have inaccurate numbers. I'm a little disturbed by this. I would rather that they meet with (the Office of Management and Budget) and justify those numbers."
"Do we have to go that far?" Harris asked. "We can get that this evening. Cut to the chase."
Weeks came to the podium again and began to explain.
"I'm not going to allow this speculation," Richie cut off Weeks, who threw his hands in the air and sat down again.
"I think it's a horrible way to treat the IDA-EDC," Harris said. "It's a public hearing. Let's hear them out."
"He doesn't have the solid numbers," Richie insisted.
"I don't think he had an opportunity to get through his presentation," Brooks said.
Elwell resolved the stalemate with a motion: on or before April 1, commissioners will review funding. Commissioners voted 4-0, with Ron Handley absent.
McGehee was appreciative. "If we can have a target like that. We just want to leave enough in there so that, if we close the door, we can pay unemployment and uncompensated leave. Just so we know what we can expect."
"Bring us tangible results," Elwell promised, "not necessarily a new business. What are their names? Why didn't we do business? What have you done to attract new business?"
"That's certainly fair." McGehee said.
The IDA was working on grants for land around the bombing range, Brooks recalled. "If you go away, someone is going to have to take over that."
"Central Florida Regional Planning Council is prepared to do that," Richie said.
"What I have not heard," Rick Ingler rose from the audience to say, "is that the IDA-EDC needs to become self-funded through partners in the community. This is the only IDA-EDC that isn't self funded by the community, I think their future depends on that. Our economy doesn't look much better next year."
"That is the direction we will try to go," Richie said. "Some angst came out of his discussion that was uncalled for. The IDA-EDC is vital to this community. I have said that many, many times from this speaker. They have done a very good job with what they had to work with. I have been very active with this organization."
Mechling reminded commissioners that tax collections probably won't get better next year.
Without a $3 million transfer from transportation and lowering reserves $2.2 million, the commissioners would have had to cut the budget.
"Safe to say we used up all the available little pockets money," Brooks asked. "Next year will be much worse, right?"
"I'm not expecting any more," Mechling said. "We are out of sources of one-time money. It will be very difficult to balance next year. And will probably see more expenditures."
"In other words, we have robbed Peter to pay Paul," Brooks said.
"Peter is dead," former Avon Park Mayor Tom Macklin said from the audience.