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Tuesday, Aug 04, 2015
Local News

Highlands County escapes Scott’s veto pen


— Come Sept. 1, Florida motorists will be paying an average of $25 less a year on their annual vehicle registration fees as part of a rollback the state Legislature approved this year.

April 2, Gov. Rick Scott signed SB 156 to reduce auto renewal fees, which were increased in 2009, putting into action one of his top priorities for the legislative session.

Auto tag fees are based on vehicles’ weights so it’s not an across-the-board $25 reduction but averages to about that.

Currently, renewal costs for the three main weight classes are $46.65 for vehicles up to 2,500 pounds; $57.65 for vehicles from 2,500 to 3,499 pounds; and $71.15 for cars and trucks over 3,500 pounds.

Senate Bill 156, which cuts $400 million in annual vehicle registration fees, became the signature campaign of the new $77 billion budget Scott signed into law Monday.

The overall budget is roughly 3.5 percent higher than last year’s budget and includes a boost in money for schools, child welfare and projects to battle water pollution.

Scott also vetoed nearly $69 million in individual spending items included in the budget, although Highlands County was spared from the veto pen this year.

“Nothing was vetoed and I appreciate the governor recognizing the needs of the county and the region,” said State Sen. Denise Grimsley in an email about local budget appropriations.

One of those appropriations that finally made it this year is $520,000 for The Advancement Via Individual Determination program, or AVID, which prepares middle and high school students in the “academic middle” for college.

The elective program is open to the sixth, seventh, ninth and 10th grades. Highlands County students learn study, leadership and organizational skills, and they’re tutored twice a week by South Florida State College students.

Last year, Scott had vetoed the money because it was a local project, although the program was put in place through a combination of federal and school district funds.

The school district’s director for AVID John Varady said he will have a better idea later in the month when the details are ironed out.

“It would enhance our implementation of AVID in Highlands County middle and high schools,” he said. The money will “maximize our potential to increase access to AVID courses to all students.”

Peace River Center will get $675,000 to help mentally ill kids, and the Spring Lake Improvement District will be able to match $416,000 to a Florida Department of Environmental Project grant to store and treat millions of gallons of storm-water runoff from the Sebring Regional Airport and U.S. 98 before pumping it into Arbuckle Creek.

William Gardam, chief executive officer of the Peace River Center explained in an earlier Highlands Today report that if the state approved the $675,000 funding, the money would be used to base an 11-member Community Action Team at the Children’s Advocacy Center in Sebring.

“It is a mobile team that responds to cases 24/7 to remove the risk from the home instead of the individual,” Gardam said. If a child is in emotional crisis, the team, which includes a psychiatrist and a psychiatric nurse practitioner, goes into the client’s home “to keep the family safe and stable. We try to work with the family so they can stay together.”

At Spring Lake, improvement district manager Joe DeCerbo was “delighted” the district’s first state appropriation got the go-ahead.

The money will be used to help the district, which borders Arbuckle Creek, meet a government storage and water-quality mandate and keep phosphorus-laden water out of the Everglades.

To fulfill the mandate, Spring Lake has bought 100 acres along its levy to construct a stormwater treatment wetland area, where plants and vegetation such as water hyacinths, will suck the phosphorus in the water before it is released into Arbuckle Creek, on its way to Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.

“We have spent 3 million (dollars) in unfunded mandates over the last few years,” he said.

One of those big expenses was buying the land needed to construct the wetlands. The project is likely going to be put out for bids in about six months.

The state money almost did not make it that far. DeCerbo said it was taken out of the House budget at the last minute and put back due to Rep. Cary Pigman’s efforts.

The state also has allocated money to help researchers find out why pathogens are causing a disorder among caladium bulbs, causing grassy tubers, which produce too many shoots, inhibit flowering and affect the yield of caladium bulbs.

Grassy tubers, discovered in Florida in the 1980s, have reduced caladium production. The disease also stunts the leaves, which are greener and not as colorful.