SEBRING - Highlands County's deficit likely will grow another $9 million next year, so County Commissioner Don Elwell proposed forming a citizen's advisory committee.
"There are a lot of folks out there with good ideas," Elwell said at Tuesday evening's commission meeting. "They could come to us with ideas."
Other commissioners didn't immediately warm to the idea.
"We can think about this," Vice Chair Greg Harris said. "We have plenty of time." Harris presided because Chairman Jack Richie had surgery on Monday.
"They couldn't talk to each other, period, outside those meetings," County Attorney Ross Macbeth interjected. State law forbids government-appointed members from discussing public matters outside their committees.
"We can show them the DVD and give them the Sunshine speech," Elwell suggested.
Senior Budget Manager Tim Mechling said Wednesday that his office had provided the estimate, but that it didn't include rainy day fund money. Because expenses have exceeded revenues, commissioners have withdrawn money from the county savings account since 2009.
Elwell said although the amount is likely to change before budget talks begin in June 2014, the deficit "could be south of $9 million."
Harris said he wouldn't have a problem with a citizens committee.
"How would the committee be made up?" Commissioner Jim Brooks asked.
Commissioners could appoint volunteers, Elwell said, "at least one from each political party and other government groups. No bigger than seven; then it would be too big."
The idea worked well when citizens were asked their ideas about the animal control department, Elwell suggested. A committee was appointed 18 months ago, but still has not given its complete report to the commission. A veterinarian's committee was also appointed.
County Administrator June Fisher said her staff has already started working on the budget, and that she is delaying the hiring of new employees.
"We're trying to save a few dollars," Fisher said.
Dick Noel rose from the audience to suggest that the entire Emergency Medical Services department be privatized. The ambulance service has saved many lives though the years, he acknowledged. "If it weren't for them, I wouldn't be here today," Noel said.
A presentation by Tax Collector Eric Zwayer showed that the 2007 tax roll certified $129.4 million in levies; by 2013, that had dropped to $82.2 million.
One reason why: in 2007, Highlands County real estate and tangible property was valued at $1.62 billion. That's risen to $1.98 billion. However, $2 million worth of tax certificates were struck to the county in 2012-13, meaning 20,700 property owners didn't pay their taxes and no one wanted to buy the certificates. Almost 15,000 tax certificates remain for sale, totaling $5.1 million.
The state pushed another obligation onto the counties this year. The legislature mandated that counties must test driver's for licenses, which Zwayer called an underfunded mandate because he expects his office will lose money this year.
The tax collector's office also registers boats, issues garage sale permits, hunting and fishing licenses, birth certificates, and collects taxes for 69 special fire, garbage, sidewalk and lighting districts.
A slide show of Zwayer's PowerPoint presentation to commissioners can be found at www.hctaxcollector.com/
At the request of Environmental Specialist Corine Burgess, commissioners approved an agreement with Avon Park Air Force Range Lt. Col. Paul Neidhardt, Dr. Hilary Swain, the Central Florida Regional Planning Council and the Nature Conservancy to provide up to $500,000 from the Conservation Trust Fund to buy conservation easements.
In the days of propeller fighters, Neidhardt said the Air Force had few complaints. "Now we have jet engines. They're loud."
In response to a question from Tea Party chair John Nelson, Neidhardt said the Air Force has no current plans to drop live munitions. "In the future, it could be yes, but today, the answer is no."