SEBRING - This month, Florida may have become America's third largest state, surpassing New York. Within the next few years, Highlands County will tip over 100,000 population. And perhaps, if Avon Park keeps annexing, it will again be Highlands County's most populated city.
The Great Recession slowed Florida's population growth five years ago, but in 2012 the northern migration resumed from Ohio, Michigan, and even New York itself. This month, the Sunshine State's population probably exceeded the Empire State, according to U.S. Census estimates.
Florida's population on April 1, 2013, was estimated to be 19,552,860, a 1.5 percent gain since 2010, the state's Office of Economic and Demographic Research said last year in a report to the Florida Legislature. New York's 2013 population was 19,641,127, but its rate of decline and Florida's rate of growth led demographers to estimate that Florida became the third largest state in December or January.
Even at an annual growth rate of less than 2 percent, Florida's population is expected to reach 19,750,577 by 2015 and 25,583,153 by 2040, a July report by the Florida Demographic Estimating Conference showed. By comparison, New York state's population in 2015 is expected to reach 19,546,904, and 19,623,506 in 2040, a Cornell University report said.
Before the recession began in 2008, Highlands County was growing at such a fast clip that University of Florida demographers estimated the population tipped over 100,000.
However, when the official 2010 Highlands County census was released, the number had slipped back to 98,786, up from the 1990 number of 68,432 and the 2000 number of 87,366.
The 2012 estimate showed Highlands County at 98,128, and the 2013 estimate still hasn't been released, but real estate sales have picked up and county officials have mentioned that the population seems to be growing again.
The census estimated Avon Park's 2012 population at 8,792, up 91 people from 2010, and Sebring at 10,340, down 73 people from the 2010 headcount.
The Avon Park City Council established the growth of the city limits as a priority, said City Manager Julian Deleon. By contrast, Sebring's council has chosen to annex only if it seems financially sound, said City Manager Scott Noethlich.
"During the past three years, we have done exactly this. As we have grown, we have also drastically reduced user rates and property taxes. These financial measures have facilitated annexations," Deleon said. "We finance utility impact fees. We have developed partnerships with private industry, and other government units to keep our expenses down. Several of the large-scale annexations have been the result of the city constructing water and sewer utilities to service future large tracts of land."
At the same time, Deleon said, the city has acquired private utilities and centralized services. "In the past three years, we have acquired five private utilities."
Looking at land mass, Deleon said, "I believe that Avon Park is probably the largest city within Highlands County. Geographically, the city council has added about two square miles, and another 1,000 residents to our population."
Add that 1,000 to the 2012 census estimate, and Avon Park is at 9,782, just 562 people away from Sebring.
However, Deleon added, "I have some population estimates from UF that in 2012, AP had 9,200."
Annexation is always a city council decision, Noethlich said, and previous councils have made annexation a financial question. It's not about whether the city can sell water and sewer to county customers, both cities already do that.
"It's based on ad valorem (property) taxes, it's based on fire assessments and other tax revenues," Noethlich said. "The revenue generated has to exceed expenses." Expenses include fire, police and other city services.
Besides, Noethlich pointed out, more than 50 percent of the annexed population must agree. "It's very difficult to annex, and it does not appear to be the desire of the council to annex right now."
Of course, the desire of the council can changes with every election, and in 2014, Sebring will have at least two and perhaps three new council members and a new mayor.
If Sebring were to annex the population contiguous to its borders, it would clearly remain the largest municipality, Noethlich said. Sebring's city limits, for instance, go around some neighborhoods but touch Sun N' Lake.
There are few highly populated new developments, however, like Stone Ridge and Highlands Lake Reserve, that could be annexed, and the decision would be more financially sound because the houses are larger and therefore more expensive than existing homes.
"The council may have more interest in annexing commercial property," Noethlich said. "There is more revenue."
What will the AP population be in five or 10 years?
It's unclear, Deleon said. The council tried to annex Lacey Hills. "The vote failed; there were lessons there. From my perspective, the long-term focus is to annex large tracts of vacant-agricultural property, where we are strictly working or dealing with one specific property owner. Our millage being only 30 cents per $1,000 in property value makes this endeavor very easy with minimal fiscal impact to the property owner."
The property owner is helped through the evaluation and rezoning of the property, Deleon said. "Much of the construction in these types of projects has been completed by Avon Park employees. The city limits of Avon Park currently has a vast area which is vacant and prime for development with readily available city utilities. These readily developable vacant areas hold a tremendous potential for the city and individual property owners."