SEBRING - Businesses and homeowners will be safe from higher taxes for another year. Without comment, the Highlands County commissioners voted 5-0 to suspend impact fees for a fifth year.
A list of building permits since July 1, 2009 shows the county could have collected $3.7 million in the past four years, but soon after they passed the ordinance, the 2008 economic downturn began and the board suspended fees on the construction of new homes and businesses.
However, County Engineer Ramon Gavarrete told the commissioners on Tuesday, "We have not seen the increase that we expected."
If the commissioners had not acted, impact fees would have been implemented again on construction, which also would have included expansions.
Now, the moratorium will continue until June 30, 2014.
The most controversial was also the least costly agenda item: a request by Evelyn Colon to waive $1,375 in fees so that the Highway Park Neighborhood Preservation and Enhancement Council could convert a vacant 900-square-foot building into office space "and as a location for arts, culture, job fairs, workshops and job training. It will house a museum featuring local history, artifacts, photos, stories and other cultural offerings."
The surrounding grounds will be a park. Several years of back property taxes have already been paid.
The council, said Colon, "wants to reclaim Highway Park as a peaceful, safe neighborhood for families." Florida Department of Transportation has awarded a $581,00 grant to beautify Highway Park.
Commissioners Don Elwell and Ron Handley worried about setting a precedent for other non-profits to make similar requests in the future.
Perhaps the group could pay the fees, and when the project was completed, the commission could refund the money, Handley suggested. The idea gained no traction.
Commissioners Greg Harris and Jim Brooks saw it differently. "I see no problem," Harris said.
"Highway Park is an area where we wanted to encourage to progress from within," Brooks said. "There was a lot of issues down there. To me, that's why we're up here, to make decisions. I don't have a problem making a decision. That said, I'll make a motion to waive the fees."
"Highway Park has stepped up to the plate," Chairman Jack Richie agreed. "This has been an organization that can make a huge difference. They had a lot of fundraisers to get to where they are today. This is extremely important; it is a banner; it is a flag; it is something that says yes. We appreciate your sweat equity. This is not a major situation; this is $1,375."
The motion passed 3-2.
The commission had no problem passing a motion, 4-0-1, to pay the health insurance premium of Susie Bishop, the newly hired executive director of Highlands County Soil & Water Conservation District. The district pays her salary and payroll expenses; the county is also picking up the 5.18 percent annual salary contribution to the Florida Retirement System.
"I think this will be a good partnership," Elwell said. Handley abstained because Bishop is his sister.
The board also passed a resolution asking retailers not to sell candy-flavored tobacco - a teenage favorite.
"Does this have any teeth in it or is just us wishing?" Harris asked.
"No, it's all we can do," Elwell said.
"The health department will get this message out to the retailers," Patrice Ayala said.
Fewer U.S. adults are smoking, a 2012 Centers for Disease Control report said Monday. About 18 percent of adults participating in a national health survey described themselves as current smokers. The nation's smoking rate generally has been falling for decade.
Highlands County is one of the few which does not have its own lobbyist, County Administrator June Fisher suggested.
"I don't think we use the (Florida Association of Counties) enough," Harris responded.
Surrounding counties have lobbyists, Brooks suggested. "Is it possible we could partner with some of them?"
"Okay, we don't have lobbyists, but aren't our state representatives supposed to be our advocates?" Elwell said. "I'm serious. I don't think we're in a position to do this. We have employees who haven't received a raise in five years. I'm okay with looking at it, though."
"If and when we ever decide to look at a lobbyist, is that a (request for proposals) process?" Brooks asked.
"It is," Fisher responded.
Fisher also told commissioners there are inequalities in county salaries and asked for a study.
"It's long overdue," Elwell said. "The pay grade for EMS is laughable for what they do."
"It will pay for itself," Harris said.
Commissioners also agreed to look at the rollback property tax rate, which is 7.23 percent.
"Who wants to touch this?" Richie asked.
"I want all our options on the table right now," Brooks said.
Commissioners did not act on Bill Youngman's request to place a discussion of sunsetting the 2 percent tourism tax on the June 25 agenda.
"It's not a legal referendum question," County Attorney Ross Macbeth countered. "Even if it goes on the ballot, it couldn't be carried out. The only referendum allowed by statute is repeal. The voters have no authority to amend the plan. They cannot do that. Only the commissioners can amend the plan."